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Australia calls on China’s Tencent to give back prime minister’s WeChat account

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) (G20 Argentina/Flickr)
January 29, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has lost control of his official account on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, sparking concerns that Beijing may be continuing its attempts to wield political influence in the country.

Morrison’s account, which had 76,000 followers, was renamed earlier this month and his photo removed, the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph newspaper reported .

But WeChat’s parent company Tencent told the Associated Press that there was no evidence the account had been hacked.

“Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership,” Tencent said.

The account had originally been registered as required via a Chinese national who had then transferred ownership to a Fujian-based “technology services company,” Tencent said, promising to investigate further.

An Australian national familiar with the situation told RFA that it was compulsory for new WeChat accounts to be registered by Chinese nationals, and that is what Morrison’s team did.

“WeChat generally doesn’t allow personal public accounts to be set up from overseas; they generally need to be registered by a third party in mainland China who holds a mainland Chinese ID card, so they didn’t own the account,” the source said.

Control of the account was lost as early as July 2021.

“They found out about eight months ago that they weren’t able to log in, but then they found the account had been blocked from Jan. 4,” the person said. “The account was being migrated [to a different owner], so I guess China didn’t like it very much.”

Reuters tracked the new owner down to a company called Fuzhou 985, and cited an employee as saying that they had acquired it from a Chinese man living in Fuzhou, but hadn’t notice it was linked to Morrison.

The Australian source said the account would have needed to pass through multiple procedures to win approval to be transferred to a new owner.

“The company has said very clearly that there was no government intervention, but I have my reservations about that,” they said.

Tougher on China

A commentator who gave only the nickname “Jimmy” said it’s possible that Beijing feels that Morrison’s government has been tougher on China than its predecessors.

“They wanted to do something that would have a negative impact on the Liberal Party,” he said. “They feel that the Liberal Party and its current prime minister have a tougher attitude towards China, and don’t succumb so easily to the CCP’s political influence over Australia.”

“The CCP just uses the Western democratic system and freedom of speech to instill CCP propaganda,” Jimmy said. “The vast majority of overseas Chinese rely on WeChat to get their daily information.”

“If that information is distorted and untrue, … it could have a huge impact on the political life of Australia,” he said.

Max Mok, a Hong Kong Australian running for the House of Representatives said the use of WeChat should be banned.

“The problem of CCP infiltration is an issue for all political parties,” Mok told RFA. “Apps like Douyin and WeChat pose a threat in the form of a technological back door.”

“I don’t think Western politicians should be downloading them.”

The Australian government has requested that the account be restored, but has yet to receive a reply, according to Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security Chair James Paterson.

He accused Beijing of seeking to censor Morrison — a fellow member of the ruling Liberal Party — ahead of a general election that must be called by May this year.

“What the Chinese government has done by shutting down an Australian account is foreign interference of Australian democracy in an election year,” Paterson said.

Some 1.2 million Chinese Australians use WeChat, but were unable to read posts from the prime minister, but could still see posts from the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanese, he said.

Beijing’s interference likely

Liberal Party lawmaker and former diplomat Dave Sharma said interference from Beijing looked likely.

“More likely than not it was state-sanctioned and it shows the attitude towards free speech and freedom of expression that comes out of Beijing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Australian Open said they would no longer be banning fans from wearing T-shirts expressing support for Peng Shuai, the Chinese former world doubles No. 1 who has been largely incommunicado after accusing a former vice premier of sexual assault.

The U-turn came after tennis legend Martina Navratilova hit out at Tennis Australia for “capitulating” to Beijing, after the organization said it wouldn’t allow “political statements” at its events, prompting calls for an investigation into possible influence via the event’s Chinese sponsors.