Xiao Ding had her final green card interview in late September 2020. For the NGO manager, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, the interview for permanent residency would end her 10-year visa journey in America, first as an international graduate student, then as an H-1B high-skilled worker and the spouse of an American citizen. But months after the interview,  there’s one question that still lingers in her mind. 

“The officer asked if I have ever taken any Chinese Communist Party courses in college,” Ding recalled. It came up after he asked if she was a member of the party, also known as the CCP. Ding wasn’t, but she was caught off guard. It’s not that she has much to conceal — she took mandatory classes in college that would only constitute as party “affiliation” under a broad interpretation of that word— but raised against the backdrop of a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship, the question has no straight answer.

Immigrants from Mainland China who are eligible for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency are caught in a standoff between superpowers. In the past year, the Trump administration’s policies and guidelines related to  affiliation with the CCP have grown more and more stringent. But for immigrants like Ding, “affiliation” is a word that leaves abundant room for ambiguity. As anxiety and fear have spread through immigrant Chinese communities, online forums and websites have begun offering backdoor methods of placating the suspicions of immigration authorities .

The transformation of party affiliation into an immigration litmus test has “happened quite recently, especially after the Trump administration’s policy changes this year,” said “Warald,” a cofounder of 1point3acres (he prefers to go by his screen name), one of the largest online forums for Chinese international students and expats, and the moderator of its popular immigration section. 

In early September, a post appeared on 1point3acres’ immigration section chronicling the green card interview of an applicant in Hartford, Connecticut. The poster said his immigration officer told him that his case would likely be denied because of his past “party affiliation.” According to the post, the immigration officer told him a personal statement by applicants affirming they were no longer attached to the party wouldn’t suffice. With more than 30,000 views, the post sent Chinese applicants on the forum into a flurry of comments as they anxiously inquired about and debated the issue. 

On the popular encrypted messaging app Telegram, a group made specifically for immigrants struggling with CCP membership appeared a few weeks later. Within a few weeks, the group had grown into an online community of more than 800 people, most of them former Communist Party members. “This place is wonderful,” one poster said immediately after the group was created. “Finally, somewhere to objectively discuss this matter without being laughed at.” 

Discussions in Telegram groups and on 1point3acres have been fueled by a series of measures as U.S.-China relation deteriorated under the Trump administration: In July, the White House reportedly considered a sweeping travel ban of all Communist Party members and their families; in October, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a policy manual and guideline emphasizing the inadmissibility of members of Communist Party and other totalitarian organizations. In December, the State Department announced a new rule limiting Chinese Communist Party members and their immediate families’ to one-month, single-entry visas. (Formerly, they were eligible for ten-year, multiple-entry ones.) It took effect last month.

“How can I get solid evidence to show I quit the party?” The Trump administration’s new policies have made this a recurring question on immigration forums and chat groups. Some suggest notarized letters, yet others say their hometown notary office refuses to process any requests regarding party affiliation. Still others believe a letter from the local branch might suffice, but there is no consensus on how to prove, in an official capacity, that one “quit” the party. 

“People get ejected from the party when they commit certain offenses,” said Rui Zhong, a China analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Most regular Chinese party members aren’t prominent enough to warrant a public expulsion. The sheer size of the organization and the lack of coordination among its many local branches can make it difficult for the party just to track down its own lower-level members, nor are there standardized official forms available for members who are looking to quit.

via Tuidang.org

On different expatriate forums, some suggest using Taobao, China’s eBay equivalent, to purchase an unofficial “Communist Party Withdrawal Certificate.” In August last year, a website that bills itself as the “Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party” began offering, to anyone willing to pay its $80 fee, a similar unverified certificate. But the site is backed by the controversial Falun Gong religious movement, which publically campaigns against the CCP (China has banned the group, which the party officially labels an “evil cult”).

Anyone who opts for the site’s unverified certification process will be added to its public tally of people who have “renounced the notorious Chinese Communist Party.”  And while immigrants may seek to distance themselves from the CCP to visit and reside in the U.S., they risk blowback in China if they’re caught engaging with banned groups like Falun Gong. Despite the massive risk, several people posting across online forums for immigrants say they’re considering going ahead with the unverified certificates.

In Chinese Telegram groups, would-be immigrants talk about another desperate last resort: begging their former party supervisor to issue “expel letters,” threatening to expose local party officials on foreign media if they refuse to cooperate, and other creative ways to get fired by the party. There are also applicants who expressed interest in taking the risk and simply hiding their past party involvement, betting on the unlikelihood of any data exchange  data between the Chinese and American governments. In an anonymous poll of 305 participants in one of the immigrant Telegram groups, 4% said they would not disclose past party affiliation and hope to get away with it.

“There is a huge risk,” said Tsui Yee, an immigration lawyer based in New York. Yee says such deception could result in the revocation of immigration status or deportation, and it’s not unprecedented. Even if the omission doesn’t result in a denial from authorities, said Tsui “the fact that the applicant lied in itself is a separate ground. It calls into question the person’s moral character.”

In early December, the Senate unanimously passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It immediately rattled many Chinese immigrants online: With vague language similar to that of other immigration policies, a section of the act seeks to prohibit admission or immigration for people affiliated with the CCP and Chinese military

So long as U.S. immigration authorities remain suspicious of CCP affiliation, the lack of any official documents renouncing membership in the Chinese Communist Party puts the onus for gathering “evidence” on Chinese immigrants. 

“It’s kind of shàng gāng shàng xiàn”, said Warald from 1point3acres, quoting a phrase dating from the Cultural Revolution, when fervent loyalists would elevate arbitrary conversations into debates about loyalty to the party. 

Even with the Biden administration incoming, the anxiety in the Chinese immigrant community shows no sign of dissipating. “Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?” said Ding, who recently received her green card but is already worrying about her naturalization interview, still years away. “It’s like a ticking time bomb.”