US police all a-twitter about Weibo
Law enforcement officers are using social media to engage with the local Chinese community, as Zhang Yuchen reports.
When the police department of Alhambra, California, announced that it was opening an account with Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, on Dec 9, the aim was to reach out to the Chinese community and encourage greater crosscultural engagement.
Although a number of foreign official and cultural organizations and celebrities have already used Weibo to promote cultural and civic ties, it’s the first time a foreign police department has set up an account on China’s largest social network, which has millions of active users worldwide. The target group is the tech-savvy younger generation of Chinese immigrants, aged 24 to 36.
“Our first initiative was to break down a few language barriers,” said Alhambra’s Chief of Police Mark Yokoyama. “Weibo seemed a natural way to communicate with the Chinese community, who might be unfamiliar with, or distrust, the police or local government.”
Chinese residents of Alhambra scored significantly lower on three criteria — neighborhood belonging, collective efficacy and civic engagement — than whites or Hispanics, according to Alhambra Source, a news portal that uses journalism to bridge the gap between the city’s multilingual population and the local government and promote civic engagement.
Approximately 13 million Chinese live in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Alhambra has a population of 85,000, and approximately 53 percent are of Asian descent. Of those, 65 to 70 percent, or 30,000, are ethnically Chinese, a figure larger than the populations of many cities in southern California, which is home to most US-based Asians.
The attempt to reach out started after Yokohama read a news story that examined ways of increasing the Chinese community’s engagement in civic life. However, at present, most of the 6,000 people who follow the account are not actually resident in the US; they mainly reside in China and use the account to gain information about places they’re considering moving to.
“The Chinese population stays quiet and doesn’t get involved in the community, but we would like to know what they are thinking and doing,” said Walter Yu, a court interpreter, who moved to Alhambra from Shanghai 10 years ago and updates the police’s Weibo account. The platform mainly focuses on essential information about daily life in the city, some of which has been translated from the department’s Facebook page.
To some extent, though, it has become a two-way street and followers regularly offer information related to local crimes highlighted on the platform, according to Yu.
The feedback has been warm and Chinese residents said that before the platform was established they knew little about crimes committed in their neighborhoods, which left them — business owners especially — at a disadvantage, and they appreciate the open communication about this and other, healthier, aspects of community life. The account has also helped in other ways — for example, it has become a forum where followers can ask questions they’ve pondered for a long time, but didn’t know where to look for answers.
Leo Xiao was born on the Chinese mainland in 1990 and studied at Pasadena City College. After living in West Covina in the greater Los Angeles area for six years, he returned to China in 2013. Shortly after his return, Xiao heard that the Alhambra police had opened a Weibo account and began to follow it.
“I found it very helpful as a platform to learn how the police department is run in the area, even though I was rarely involved in community activities,” he said. “All I knew about the community came via the local Chinese media.”
Xiao, who is planning to return the US at some point, said before the account opened, he knew little about the subjects posted on the platform. “It definitely makes me feel closer to the local police department and the community.”
The Chinese population stays quiet and doesn’t get involved in the community, but we would like to know what they are thinking and doing.” WALTER YU ALHAMBRA COURT INTERPRETER “I found it very helpful as a platform to learn how the police department is run in the area, even though I was rarely involved in community activities.” LEO XIAO FORMER CALIFORNIA RESIDENT
Wang Xinyi, who is studying for a doctorate in pathology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, lives two blocks from the Alhambra police department. Although she can speak and write English, she prefers to use Chinese information providers. “Languages are the medium of culture. I have no problem communicating in English, but when I see micro blog posts in Chinese, I feel more at home. It makes me feel closer to the community,” she said.
Daniel Hung, who was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but whose parents come from Taiwan, said: “Chinese immigrants usually do not participate in the community because of the cultural and language barriers. Like Korean-Americans, they usually stay within in their own groups. In my experience, the only thing that brings different races closer is a shared belief. Churches usually organize bigger events that bring the community together.”
When Yokoyama accepted the position of chief of police in June 2011, one of his stated priorities was an improvement in community engagement.
Although that engagement applies equally to all sections of society, the marked lack of integration by the Chinese population was the driving force behind Yokoyama’s decision to launch the Weibo account, especially as the community is large and its business presence is considerable.
Chinese people in Alhambra tend to be first- or second-generation immigrants, which means they have lived in the community for a shorter period of time than their Latino and white neighbors, said Nien-Tsu Chen, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s school of journalism.
According to Yu, in addition to the community’s relative newness, socio-cultural barriers also have to be overcome. He pointed out that life in China revolves around the family, so when Chinese people move to the US they have to adapt to a wider concept of community.
Although Asian people are often regarded as education-oriented, many Chinese immigrants have attracted attention because of their wealthy backgrounds, especially the most-recent arrivals, called “parachute kids” by non-Chinese locals. They are the children of ultrawealthy families, who have been sent to live with their relatives in the US Asian community, and have little parental supervision, but plenty of money.
Around seven years ago, Hung left Houston and moved to China for work. Before his departure, though, he noticed an increasing number of people from the Chinese mainland arriving in his community, which was predominantly Latin in character.
Around 30 years ago, the first generation of Chinese that emigrated to Los Angeles had no choice but to work and support their families. As a minority, they struggled to survive, floated between jobs, and many were forced to go back to college to gain the sort of education that would guarantee a better job.
But even within the Chinese community, clear social distinctions are apparent. “We found that people from the mainland are the only group where no one votes in local elections, which is a major civic activity,” said Chen from USC.
In response, the mainlanders maintain that being politically active is not part of Chinese culture, and instead of being active in civic affairs, they prefer to focus their energies on ensuring the well-being of their families.
“We definitely vote because the results (of elections) will greatly influence our daily life in the near future, but in terms of other activities, we participate very little. People are busy,” said Kenny Chang from Rancho Palos Verdes, Los Angeles, a 45-minute drive from San Gabriel Valley, a community with few Chinese residents.
As a “1.5” generation of Chinese American, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the US with their family at an early age, Chang believes a diverse population brings energy, but can also be a source of problems. Remaining in an identifiable social and cultural background is a common feature of people in diversified communities, although choices vary between individuals.
Chang, who now works and lives in Beijing, grew up surrounded by Chinese-American friends who shared a similar cultural background. Like him, they were mainly kids whose families had arrived from Taiwan — very few had connections with the Cantonese culture, and there were even fewer mainlanders.
“Religious places are good venues for mixed populations to mingle and get to know each other. But beyond those venues, greater efforts have to be made to bridge the gap between languages and cultures. The police Weibo account is definitely a rare attempt to reach out.”
For Hung, to whom the latest generation of Chinese immigrants appears more “aggressive” and outgoing — as he himself was “shy” and “quiet” growing up — making friends with a person from a Cantonese background is only possible when the lingua franca is English. “My best friend right now is a white American,” he added.
Although both men were excited by the Alhambra police account, they expressed a shared concern — how successful will the initiative be?
Chief Yokoyama believes the account will flourish. In the coming months the police department will contact local Chinese businesses via Weibo and will also set up an information booth in a community center during the Chinese New Year festival, which falls at the end of the month, to further promote the Weibo account and aid integration. Contact the writer at email@example.com Wayne Chou and Brian Liou contributed to this story.
Clockwise from top: The police department of Alhambra, California opened an account with Sina Weibo, aiming to reach out to the Chinese community. A screen shot of the Alhambra police account at Sina Weibo Members of staff of the Alhambra Source news portal at work. The multicultural community of Alhambra includes a large population of ethnic Asians. The mayor of Alhambra, Steve Sham, displays the Weibo screen.