Donations began to pour in at 10 p.m. on December 17.
Li Zhang, a donor, contributed $100. A few minutes later, a man named Jun Li made a $100 donation. Then Hao Xu gave $20, which was quickly followed by $25 from a Ying Pei. In all, almost 1,000 individuals with Chinese surnames contributed about $86,000 to a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding site GiveSendGo for members of the extremist street gang the Proud Boys.
Their contributions accounted for more than 80% of the $106,107 collected for hospital expenses for Proud Boys members stabbed amid violent protests in Washington in mid-December.
The donations, which were discovered in a cache of leaked GiveSendGo data and released on the whistleblower website Distributed Denial of Secrets, raise a number of concerns.
Why might people from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as members of the Chinese American community, contribute to an organisation with strong links to white nationalists, whose members flash white power symbols and share violent memes on social media?
Surprisingly, the Proud Boys have considerable sponsorship from a segment of the Chinese American community and the larger Chinese diaspora.
Many Chinese Americans have bought into the Proud Boys’, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and conservative pundits’ claims that America is under communist attack.
They say the Proud Boys are at the forefront of defending the world from a socialist force headed by antifa and the Black Lives Matter campaign – statements that have been refuted by several sources.
The Proud Boys have taken on a legendary reputation as tough street soldiers on the front lines of this war between democracy and communism for those who left China in rejection of communism, especially those who support former President Donald Trump.
“You have to understand how we feel – we came from communist China and we managed to come here and we appreciate it here so much,” said Rebecca Kwan, who gifted the Proud Boys $500 on Christmas Day. “The Proud Boys are for Trump and they are fighting antifa, and can you see anything good that antifa did except destroy department stores and small businesses?”
The Proud Boys have long tried to represent themselves as a community of patriots eager to do the hard work that America’s police officers and lawmakers refuse to do.
Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys, said that the group’s main goal is to shield American citizens from anarchists and leftists linked to the antifa movement who are attempting to overthrow the government.
This is a familiar theme in far-right newspapers and on social media. Jones and his British counterpart Paul Joseph Watson, both conspiracy theorists, stir up a frenzy of mistrust and terror among their audience, claiming that communists and antifa assassins are going to target conservative Americans.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has echoed this message, calling for anti-fascist leftists to be branded as terrorists. The Black Lives Matter campaign, he said, is “poison.”
When many Chinese Americans sent money to the Proud Boys a few weeks before the insurgency led by Trump backers on Jan. 6, they reiterated those thoughts.
For their involvement in the assault, at least 21 members of the Proud Boys have been charged with federal crimes.
Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys, expressed gratitude for the donations.
“I am happy that Asians support the ProudBoys because of the continuous hate and the relentless assault they get from BLM supporters,” he wrote. “So to the Asian community I’d like to say Thank You.”
Despite the group’s prejudice and sexism, Chinese American commentators, editors, and intellectuals have long recognized that a large number of their conservative peers favor the Proud Boys.
“This isn’t a surprise for us,” said Kaiser Kuo, co-founder of the Sinica Podcast, which discusses Chinese current affairs. “I know these people, I know what they’re all about. Even this recent wave of anti-Asian hate crime, which you would think might have shaken them out of their admiration for these racists and crypto-fascists like the Proud Boys – it’s actually only reinforced their beliefs.”
Most Chinese Americans voted for President Joe Biden, according to Kuo, and do not favor Trump or the parties that support him.
However, he claims that there is a highly conservative segment of the Chinese American community that supports the homophobia and even racism prevalent in America’s far-right.
According to Jennifer Ho, president of the Association for Asian American Studies, the Proud Boys’ rhetoric of stereotypical gender stereotypes and “Western Chauvinism” has its supporters in some Chinese American households, much as Trump has.
“The Proud Boys are a very attractive place for men of any ethnic background who are part of a toxic masculinity,” Ho said. “Because what they share is a fundamental belief in their maleness – a fundamental belief that U.S. society has gone off the rails.”
According to extremism analysts, the Proud Boys have long been controlled by those who take advantage of whatever conservative talking point can give them a veneer of respectability.
The GiveSendGo data was analyzed by many Chinese government misinformation scholars. Some speculated that the Chinese Communist Party may have used the fundraiser to funnel funds to the Proud Boys in order to foment extremism at a highly tense time in US politics.
“The Chinese government does focus a lot of its efforts on identity politics, but in this particular case, our limited look doesn’t link them to this,” said Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology who studies Chinese government espionage.
Joohn Choe, who co-founded Intuitive Threat Assessment with Kutner, looked into the data and concluded that the majority, if not all, of the donors are ordinary citizens, not “coordinated inauthentic actions” like bots or government agents.
Choe saw some odd behavior on social networking pages where the GiveSendGo fundraiser was spreading. A fake Facebook account run by a man from Taiwan, for example, manages a pro-Trump Facebook page with 6,000 “likes” that posted the URL for the fundraiser on December 25.
Proud Boys participants are accused by federal investigators of collaborating with other militant organizations, including self-described militias, in the run-up to the Capitol insurgency.
Tarrio was not present at the Capitol on January 6 because he had been detained two days earlier. He was charged with property loss after a Black Lives Matter flag was set on fire. He also faces two gun charges, according to police, who believe he has two high-capacity ammunition magazines on him.
Tarrio also cooperated with local and federal law enforcement, to aid in the prosecution of those running other, separate criminal enterprises.