"The American government is coming for you!" -The Chinese disinformation surrounding the U.S. federal data disaggregation policy

"The American government is coming for you!" -The Chinese disinformation surrounding the U.S. federal data disaggregation policy

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

On March 28, 2024, the U.S. White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published a document detailing revisions to Statistical Policy Directive No. 15, which specifies the standards for "maintaining, collecting, and presenting federal data on race and ethnicity." Soon after the publication of the document, false information circulated in Chinese-speaking communities—not just in the U.S. but also in China, Taiwan, and Asian countries with a significant portion of Chinese descendants. Those who published or shared false information regarding the revised policy warned: "The American government is now coming for Chinese immigrants like what they did to the Japanese during World War II!"

These statements have stoked people's fears and fury on social media platforms and websites popular among Chinese and Taiwanese audiences. Although this American internal policy does not affect individuals in other countries, it has touched on complex subjects and elicited strong feelings from people of different backgrounds. The factors contributing to the spread of the false information include the long-standing contentious debate on the division of Asian Americans' demographic data into more specific races or ethnicities, the looming concerns about discrimination against Chinese Americans, Chinese nationalism that clings to the past of humiliation by the West, the escalating geopolitical conflict between the U.S. and China, and the surging wave of Chinese who intend to leave China and start new lives elsewhere. 

In fact, the statistics policy directive has little to do with U.S. immigration policy per se. Instead, it is a guideline for gathering demographic data on race and ethnicity in the United States. As the American population has grown more diverse, several minority groups have advocated breaking down demographic data so that the government or policymakers can better understand each group's living or health conditions and develop appropriate policies to satisfy their needs. For example, it is critical to determine whether certain racial groups are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer so that the public health agency can do additional studies and propose prevention strategies for that racial group. Currently, in addition to the federal government, 13 states in the United States have enacted legislation requiring government agencies to collect disaggregated data for racial and ethnic groups when collecting demographic information.

Many members of the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community in the United States have advocated for data disaggregation since the 1980s. The advocates believe that the term "AAPI" is too broad, which encompasses people descended from Asian countries and Pacific islands (such as Hawaii), including Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Filipinos, Koreans, Indians, and so on. In reality, the living conditions of the communities vary greatly, and each has faced unique challenges. Disaggregating "Asian Americans" and acknowledging their self-identities can improve the kind of "one for all" public policies that may even hurt minority groups who are lumped into the one category of "Asians." In addition, some Taiwanese American organizations have campaigned for the recognition of "Taiwanese" as a category in the United States census and demographic surveys.

On the other hand, data disaggregation has caused anxiety among Chinese Americans. Opponents argue that the split of data categories in demographic surveys is the first step toward legal racial profiling and increases the prospect of another Chinese Exclusion Act. However, some of the statements about the concerns are based on inaccurate information or a misunderstanding of the policy.

Screenshots of  online rumors claimed that "The United States has introduced an Asian subdivision bill”

The online false information circulated in recent months in the Chinese language following the publication of Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 is once again mixed with inaccurate information, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the historical context as well as the intricacies of data disaggregation. Furthermore, malevolent actors utilized the information to intimidate immigrants in the United States and those planning to leave China.

Several narrative elements can be identified from these incorrect information pieces. The first theme is that the updated federal statistical policy directive targets just Chinese Americans. Second, the new policy requires all Chinese in the U.S. to register with the government and disclose extensive personal information. Third, dividing Asian Americans into various races and ethnicities would have severe implications, such as singling out Chinese for further discrimination, confiscation of property, or even the risk of loss of life. Furthermore, some disinformation accuses American lawmakers of Taiwanese ancestry of advocating legislation for "the subdivision of Asians [亞裔細分]."

An article on the website "TouTiao [今日頭條]" asserted that the recently amended rule specifically targeted Chinese in the U.S.: "All the Chinese who are living in the U.S., whether they have obtained U.S. citizenship or not, should be registered with the government," said that piece. Actually, according to Directive No. 15, the revisions are applicable to a broad range of groups. For instance, additional categories for Hispanic or Latino, Middle Eastern, and North African people are added. 

A screenshot of a computerDescription automatically generated
The Chinese website "TouTiao [今日頭條]" claimed that the recently published " subdivision of Chinese" legislation requires all Chinese in the U.S. to be registered with the government. It further asserted that the law "clearly singles out the Chinese."

Several misinformation pieces went on to claim that the new policy requires the Chinese to give away a wide range of private information, including age, occupation, income, tax payment history, and all records pertaining to property or real estate ownership. One article said, "You [Chinese] don't have any privacy. You must be honest while declaring and registering. If not, you'll have to take legal responsibility or risk having your possessions seized. This law is blatantly discriminatory." The story further said that because the United States has a significant amount of external debt and is having difficulty repaying it, the American government plans to use the law to extract money from the Chinese living in the U.S. After all, said the article, the only way for the U.S. to be out of this mess is to start a conflict and demand more money from the Chinese in the U.S. 

A screenshot of a websiteDescription automatically generated
Another article published on the TouTiao website claimed that the Chinese in the U.S. need to provide and register detailed information with the American government, such as occupation, income, historical records of tax payment, and financial status. 

The truth is that neither the Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 nor the data disaggregation laws passed in the 13 states have required respondents or Chinese individuals to register information with the government. Additionally, the American federal government has strict laws that forbid the use or disclosure of a person's personally identifiable information gathered during the census. 

Nonetheless, the false pieces go on to show how the data disaggregation rules will harm the Chinese residing in the United States. One Facebook post reminded audiences of the United States' exclusion and internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII. This post even wrongfully claimed that "some Chinese in the U.S. have already been unable to withdraw their money from American banks!" 

Other posts mistakenly linked the data disaggregation policy to college admissions and the affirmative action policy, stating that singling out the Chinese means a quota will be assigned to Chinese Americans when they apply for college, increasing competition among Chinese Americans for the limited slots. A TikTok video even warned that "the American government has raised their cleaver high." It is only a matter of time before the cleaver falls [on the Chinese in the U.S.]." This narrator suggested that laws requiring “Chinese registration” are a sign of mass killings against Chinese people, similar to those that had occurred in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. 

A screenshot of a social media postDescription automatically generated
The false information posts also accused the U.S. Democratic Party and Taiwanese American lawmakers of promoting the legislation. One post on Twitter and Weibo alleged that the amended OMB policy was a Democratic Party scheme. This and other similar posts also called out several Taiwanese American House representatives for promoting the "draconian law." 

Some producers of false information connected the American revised data disaggregation directive with another contentious immigration law recently enacted in the United Kingdom. For instance, the host of the aforementioned TikTok video falsely claimed that "Hong Kongers who seek HK’s independence from China [港獨份子]" are the target of a new British law, which sends asylum seekers arriving in Britain without authorization to Rwanda. The video further described the "devastating situation" Hong Kongers in the UK have endured. Similar to the earlier-mentioned false information that highlighted the discrimination against Chinese in the U.S., the videos that distorted immigration policy in the U.K. and immigration life appeared to suggest that immigrants in Western countries face even harsher treatment. 

The case of these false information pieces distorting the United States statistics policy directive is yet another good illustration of how false information may be developed from existing controversies, myths, and fears to serve various propaganda aims. 

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center. 

Yun-Kai Hsu (a fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center)  contributed to this analysis.


🔗 Peng, Andrew, Mary Yang, and Javan Santos. “A Statistical Storm: Data Disaggregation and the Debate Over AAPI Identity.” The Yappie, November 22, 2023. https://theyappie.com/aapi-data-disaggregation/.

🔗 Taiwan FactCheck Center. “【錯誤】網傳「美國推出亞裔細分法案,強制亞裔居民要再登記為華人、日本人、越南人等」?[(Wrong) The online rumor that "The United States has introduced an Asian subdivision bill to force Asian residents to re-register as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc."],” May 23, 2024. https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/10594.

🔗 White House. “OMB Publishes Revisions to Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.” The White House, March 28, 2024. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2024/03/28/omb-publishes-revisions-to-statistical-policy-directive-no-15-standards-for-maintaining-collecting-and-presenting-federal-data-on-race-and-ethnicity/.