How Scott Morrison lost control of his WeChat account

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MELBOURNE, Australia — When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened his public WeChat account in 2019, it was ahead of a federal election. He said it would allow him to communicate directly with Chinese Australians and better understand the issues affecting them.

On Monday, reports emerged that not only had Mr Morrison been blocked from his account on the hugely popular Chinese messaging app since last year, but his picture had also been deleted and the account was now under control of a Chinese company under a new name.

Mr. Morrison’s posts are still around, as are his 76,000 subscribers. But the episode, originally reported by the Daily Telegraph in Australia, sparked a furious response from members of Mr Morrison’s Conservative party, with some calling the loss of the WeChat account a hijacking.

Other Tory politicians have accused the Chinese social media platform of trying to interfere with Australia’s upcoming federal election by suppressing free speech – presumably that of Mr Morrison. The episode also sparked debate over whether lawmakers should even use WeChat to communicate with the country’s 1.2 million people of Chinese descent. A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison declined to comment.

It all added to another tense chapter in the unraveling of diplomatic relations between Australia and China.

James Paterson, a senator from the prime minister’s conservative Liberal Party and chairman of the powerful Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, said in a statement that the seizure of Mr Morrison’s account had been an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to “interfere in our democracy. and silence our freedom of expression.

He noted that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese still had his WeChat account.

“We cannot allow an authoritarian foreign government to interfere in our democracy and set the terms of public debate in Australia,” Mr Paterson said.

For his part, Mr Albanese said news of his rival’s WeChat problems was a “genuine concern”, but he refrained from pledging to boycott the platform.

There is no direct evidence that the Communist Party played a role in the loss of Mr Morrison’s account. Typically, when senior Chinese officials clash with Beijing, their social media accounts disappear, with censors erasing any reference to them or their posts.

WeChat is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent. The app, which has 1.26 billion users worldwide, is popular with residents of China and members of the Chinese diaspora, who use it to chat with family and friends, read news, perform payments, etc. It has been used to spread Chinese government disinformation and propaganda, and is known to censor content. President Donald J. Trump has tried to ban WeChat, as well as Chinese company TikTok, from operating in the United States, claiming it is a national security threat. A federal judge later issued an injunction.

In a statement confirming changes to Mr. Morrison’s account, Tencent said: “There is no evidence of hacking or third-party intrusion. This appears to be a dispute over account ownership.

But much remained unknown about how the transfer happened. For a public WeChat account to change hands, the original owner must complete a paper form, have it notarized and upload it to WeChat, according to Tencent’s website.

China’s Cyberspace Administration, which is in charge of the country’s internet affairs, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told a regular press conference on Monday evening that he was unaware of the details of Mr Morrison’s story, but added: “The China’s accusation of interference is nothing but baseless smear and defamation. We do not and have no interest in interfering in other countries.

Mr Paterson said Mr Morrison’s team started having trouble logging into the account in mid-2021. The government wrote to WeChat asking the social media platform to restore the account, but to no avail, according to Mr Paterson. Mr Morrison’s last post was in July 2021, when he described economic support for residents who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic closures.

Due to WeChat rules that public accounts must be registered by a Chinese national, Mr Morrison had registered his account through a Chinese intermediary.

The name of the account suddenly changed in October 2021 from ScottMorrison2019 to Aus-Chinese New Living, according to publicly available information. In November, Tencent verified Fuzhou 985 Information Technology, a software and information technology company based in Fujian Province, as the new business owner of the account, according to searchable information. The account now says it provides information to overseas Chinese about life in Australia.

Tencent confirmed the transfer. “The account in question was originally registered by someone in the PRC and was later transferred to its current operator, a technology services company,” it said in its statement, using the initials of the People’s Republic. from China.

Huang Aipeng, a legal representative of Fuzhou 985, said in a phone interview that the company is now, indeed, the owner of the WeChat account. But he insisted he had no idea its former owner had been Australia’s leader.

“We didn’t know what this public account was for,” Huang said.

He explained that he bought the account – legitimately – because the company needed a public WeChat account that already had followers (a common practice in China). He declined to say who he bought the account from.

This is not the first time Mr Morrison has come up against the Chinese social media giant. In 2020, a WeChat post by the Prime Minister criticized a doctored image, posted on Twitter by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, which showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. WeChat censored the Prime Minister’s post, saying it violated its guidelines.

More broadly, Canberra has long accused Beijing of meddling in Australian affairs. The relationship hit a new low in 2020, when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and China imposed tariffs on Australian products, including wine and barley. Australia has also denounced the crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and joined a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics to protest China’s human rights record.

With the loss of Mr Morrison’s account, some Australian officials have vowed to get rid of WeChat. Hong Kong-born parliamentarian Gladys Liu, whose constituency includes ethnic Chinese voters, was among them.

“In an election year especially, this type of interference in our political processes is unacceptable, and this issue should be taken very seriously by all Australian politicians,” she said in a statement. “Due to these concerns, I will no longer use my official or personal WeChat accounts to communicate until the platform explains itself.”

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke hasn’t used his WeChat account since 2019. But he too said he has “no intention of using it in the near future”.

Yan Zhuang reported from Melbourne, Australia, and John Liu from Taipei, Taiwan.

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