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Local Officials in US Use Chinese Social Media to Reach Immigrants

Asians are the largest immigrant group in some U.S. cities, and many of them speak Chinese. A growing number of police departments and city officials are trying to reach them through Chinese social media.

In San Gabriel, California, a popular destination for Chinese-speaking immigrants, city officials turned to a Chinese microblogging website called Weibo this year, and it's a decision that is making history, said Lauren Gold, the city's public information officer.

“As far as we know and according to Weibo, we’re the only city government, city hall, that has an account right now in Weibo in the U.S.," she said. "The response has been overwhelming. Almost overnight we got about 2,000 followers, which is about how many we have on our Facebook account, which has been going on for years."

The idea of using Chinese social media came from a neighboring community, Alhambra. Two years ago, Alhambra's police department became the first in the U.S. to open a Weibo account. Sergeant Jerry Johnson said the response was great.

“We had three times more followers in two years on Weibo than we did on Facebook, and that was up for five or six years,” he said. Alhambra police now have more than 40,000 followers on Weibo, and many of them live in China.

At the start of 2015, the Alhambra department said, it became the first in the nation to use another Chinese social media site, WeChat.

The department's Wendy Lee said the messaging system is a good tool for making announcements. She said immigrants often distrust the police because of experiences in their home country; one person even compared the police back home to gangsters. She said communicating with people on Chinese social media sites helps dispel myths about the department.

Johnson said Chinese social media also provide people overseas with a window into the U.S.

“I think it lets people see what life is really like there," he said. "This isn’t Hollywood. This isn’t the movies. This isn’t a television show. It’s coming from our little community, right onto their computer or their iPad.”

Several other police departments in the San Gabriel Valley have followed Alhambra’s lead and have Weibo accounts. Gold said it is just the beginning.

“That’s kind of the way that the trends are going right now," she said. "A lot of the cities, especially in our area, have a really large Chinese-speaking population, and Facebook and Twitter just don’t cut it anymore.”

And it is not just in the San Gabriel Valley. Alhambra police said agencies on the East Coast are also inquiring about Chinese social media and how to start an account.