The donations started coming in around 10 p.m. on Dec. 17.
A donor named Li Zhang gave $100. A few minutes later, someone named Jun Li donated $100. Then Hao Xu gave $20, followed shortly by $25 from a Ying Pei. In all, almost 1,000 people with Chinese surnames gave about $86,000 to a fundraiser on the crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo for members of the extremist street gang the Proud Boys.
Their gifts made up more than 80% of the $106,107 raised for medical costs for members of the Proud Boys who were stabbed during violent clashes in Washington in mid-December.
The donations, which are included in a trove of hacked GiveSendGo data provided to USA TODAY and posted on the whistleblower site Distributed Denial of Secrets, raise several questions. Chiefly: Why would people from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and members of the Chinese American community, donate to an organization with deep ties to white supremacists, whose members flash white power signals and post racist memes on social media?
The surprising answer to this question is that the Proud Boys enjoy significant support from a slice of the Chinese American community and the broader Chinese diaspora.
Some Chinese Americans have bought in to the rhetoric spread by the Proud Boys, conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones and conservative commentators that America is under attack from communism. They believe the Proud Boys are on the vanguard of protecting the country from a communist army controlled by antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement – claims that have been widely debunked.
For some who left China in rejection of communism, particularly those who support former President Donald Trump, the Proud Boys have taken on an almost mythical status as tough street soldiers on the front lines of this battle between democracy and communism.
"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 sent 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?"
Donors praise Proud Boys
The Proud Boys have long sought to portray themselves not as a white supremacist organization or a violent street gang but as a group of patriots willing to do the hard work they say America's police departments and politicians won't do.
Proud Boys chairman Henry "Enrique" Tarrio claimed that his group primarily exists to protect American citizens from anarchists and communists aligned with the antifa movement who are trying to overthrow the U.S. government.
That refrain is common in far-right media and social media. Conspiracy mongers such as Jones and his British counterpart Paul Joseph Watson whip their viewers into a frenzy of distrust and fear, contending that socialists and antifa assassins are about to attack mainstream Americans.
This message has been amplified by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has called for anti-fascist activists to be labeled as terrorists. He called the Black Lives Matter movement "poison."
Several Chinese Americans echoed those sentiments when they sent the Proud Boys money a couple of weeks before the insurrection Jan. 6 at the Capitol led by Trump supporters. At least 21 members of the Proud Boys have been charged with federal crimes for their roles in the attack.
"The Proud Boys are protecting the innocent people," said Donald Wang, a Queens, New York, resident who donated $50. "A lot of people in my community support them."
Many of the donations were accompanied by messages that mirror what donors told USA TODAY.
"You are the true heroes and patriots!" Janice Wang wrote after donating $100.
"Thank you for your courage to fight for our freedom!!" Ao Liu wrote after donating $30.
"Thank you, proud boys. You are my heroes," wrote Nancy Chang, who sent $300 the day before members of the Proud Boys helped storm the U.S. Capitol.
Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman, said he's thankful 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 in a text message. "So to the Asian community I'd like to say Thank You."
Despite its bigotry, Proud Boys has fans among Chinese Americans
Commentators, journalists and academics in the Chinese American community said they have long known that a significant portion of their conservative peers support the Proud Boys, despite the group's racism and bigotry.
"This isn't a surprise for us," said Kaiser Kuo, host and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast, which discusses current affairs in China. "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."
Kuo stressed that most Chinese Americans voted for President Joe Biden and do not support Trump or the groups that back him. But he said there is a deeply conservative faction of the Chinese American community that embraces the misogyny and even racist attitudes common among America's far-right.
Much as Trump has enjoyed support from some conservative Asian Americans, the Proud Boys' rhetoric of traditional gender roles and "Western Chauvinism" has its fans in some Chinese American households, said Jennifer Ho, president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
"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."
Using the fear of communism as a fundraising tool
Extremism experts said the Proud Boys has long been run by those who exploit whatever conservative talking point will offer them a veneer of respectability.
Since Tarrio, a self-identifying Afro-Cuban American, took the reins of the organization, its political messaging has focused on fighting communism and "cultural Marxism" pushed by liberal social movements – primarily antifa and Black Lives Matter.
Standing in the way of this theory are the facts: Antifa, or anti-fascism, is a loosely defined and decentralized movement, rather than a political organization. Black Lives Matter is a movement focused on racial equality and police brutality. Neither group espouses a communist takeover of America.
Like the McCarthyists of the 1950s, the Proud Boys have latched on to the fear of communism as a tried-and-true mechanism for building support and raising money.
"The Proud Boys are opportunists," said Samantha Kutner, who studies the group and founded Intuitive Threat Assessment, an agency specializing in intelligence on disinformation and violent extremism. "Any grievance they can capitalize on, they will capitalize on."
Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab who studies extremism, noted that purporting to be anti-communist has also won support among Latin Americans.
"For large parts of the world, there is a context and implication and history to communism and how it has affected several countries," Holt said. "So there are some communities of immigrants and descendants of immigrants for which the Proud Boys' projection as a group combating communism in the United States resonates favorably."
He said it's important to note that what the Proud Boys call "communism" isn't the same political force that people who have lived under communist regimes contended with.
"The way the terms 'socialism' and 'communism' have been deployed have really stripped those terms of their practical context," Holt said. "The Proud Boys are happy to label anything that is antithetical to their own causes, many of which are progressive, as ‘communist.’”
Researchers say donations don't appear to be Chinese influence campaign
Several researchers of Chinese government disinformation examined the GiveSendGo data. Initially, some posited that the fundraiser could have been used by the Chinese Communist Party to funnel money to the Proud Boys in an effort to foment extremism at a particularly sensitive time in U.S. 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, investigated the data and concluded that most, if not all, of the donors are regular people, rather than "coordinated inauthentic behavior" such as bots or government agents.
"These are just radicalized expats," Choe said. "They're real people – real estate agents, scientists. Just Chinese American boomers."
Choe found some unusual activity on social media sites where the GiveSendGo fundraiser spread. For example, a pro-Trump Facebook page with 6,000 "likes" that shared the URL for the fundraiser Dec. 25 is administered by a fake Facebook account run by a man from Taiwan.
Choe concluded that the Proud Boys fundraiser spread organically on social media and by word of mouth, spurring Chinese Americans to reach into their pockets.
USA TODAY emailed everyone who donated to the fundraiser, asking for comment. Only a handful responded. Two people wrote back to say their email accounts had been hacked or used without their permission. Several others responded with hostile comments or Proud Boys talking points.
Sheng Chen sent a one-sentence response to USA TODAY: "Very simple, in a time of social chaos, they have courage to stand up for supporting law and order."
Federal prosecutors accuse Proud Boys members of coordinating with other extremist groups, including self-described militias, in the run-up to the insurrection at the Capitol.
Tarrio wasn't at the Capitol on Jan. 6 because he had been arrested two days before. He was charged with destruction of property in connection with the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner. He also faces two weapons charges; authorities say he was in possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines.
Contributing: Brenna Smith, USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Proud Boys got donations from Chinese Americans on GiveSendGo