Australian PM Fumbles WeChat Account in Election Season

As the Australian public discovered earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison no longer has access to his WeChat account. Morrison had opened his account in 2019 to court Chinese-Australian voters before the federal election, and the account has now been transferred to  the ownership of a Chinese tech company based in Fujian. Lawmakers from Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party have presented the story as one of malicious censorship by the CCP, while critics have attacked lax management of the account and questioned the use of a Chinese social media app in a democratic election strategy.

David Winning from The Wall Street Journal reported on the initial revelation this week

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lost access to his account on the Chinese-owned WeChat service, prompting a senior lawmaker to accuse Beijing of political interference ahead of an election due within months.

Mr. Morrison has been denied access to the account since July, which his supporters say deprives him of a key tool to communicate with a Chinese community in Australia of more than 1.2 million people. Earlier this month, the account was rebranded as Australia-China New Life after being taken over by a company from Fujian province in southern China.

The 76,000 followers of the account were told in a written post that “Scott Morrison, the official account you followed before, has transferred all business and functions to this official account.”

Mr. Morrison’s earlier posts to the account haven’t been deleted from WeChat, which is owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd. [Source]

Upon hearing the news, the government mobilized in defense of Morrison: James Paterson, Liberal Party senator and chairman of the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, accused the CCP of “shutting down” Morrison’s account; finance minister Simon Birmingham encouraged citizens to reconsider their use of WeChat; treasurer Josh Frydenberg called on WeChat to restore access to the prime minister’s account; and Labor leader Anthony Albanese announced that he would meet with Morrison to discuss the national security implications. Some media outlets amplified the fiery talking points and declared that the account was hacked. Frances Mao from the BBC described how some media outlets and Liberal Party members lashed out at China:

On Monday, an Australian newspaper sparked a storm by reporting that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was thought to have had his official WeChat account “taken over” by a “pro-Beijing propaganda outfit”.

“China’s Web” read the front page headline in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

[…O]n the latest news, one of the government’s most strident anti-China critics quickly called for a WeChat boycott.

Senator James Paterson labelled the incident a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempt to “[interfere] in our democracy and silence our free speech”.

The sole Chinese-Australian MP, the government’s Gladys Liu, said she would stop her own WeChat use. She added “there are serious issues here” given an Australian election is due by May. [Source]

However, the backstory to Morrison’s lost account reveals the shaky foundation upon which he initially set it up. WeChat’s platform rules stipulate that only Chinese citizens can open “public” accounts under their own name (unlike personal/private WeChat accounts, for which the rules are not as stringent). Therefore, in order to set up his account from Australia in 2019, Morrison registered through a Chinese intermediary. As Xinhua’s Zichen Wang noted on his Pekingnology blog, according to screenshots that circulated online, Morrison’s account did not appear to be verified or linked to his real identity, unlike most other official accounts. Without direct ownership of the account, Morrison eventually had problems accessing it—as early as July 2021, according to Mr. Paterson. Yan Zhuang and John Liu from The New York Times explained the ownership change that took place:

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

Tencent confirmed the transfer. “The account in question was originally registered by a P.R.C. individual and was subsequently transferred to its current operator, a technology services company,” it said in its statement, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China.

Huang Aipeng, a legal representative for Fuzhou 985, said in a phone interview that the company was now, indeed, the owner of the WeChat account. But he insisted he had no idea its previous owner had been the leader of Australia. [Source]

On January 5, WeChat issued a notice to the account’s followers that “all business and functions” of the account had been transferred to Fuzhou 985 from the original owner, a man surnamed “Ji.” Despite claims this week that the new account was repurposed as a Chinese propaganda account, it has not posted anything since that notification, and old posts from the account dating back to 2019 were still viewable. Tencent stated that “there is no evidence of any third-party intrusion,” and concluded that the current dispute is merely over ownership of the account. 

Still unresolved is the question of why Mr. Ji, the original owner of Morrison’s account, decided to sell it when he did. Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who has closely followed Morrison’s activity on Chinese social media, provided several possible explanations in ASPI’s online publication The Strategist:

A couple of possible scenarios as to Ji’s motivation come to mind. First, it’s possible that he decided that the risk he was being exposed to was outweighed by the prospect of cashing out and selling the account and the access to the mostly Chinese-Australian followers it had accumulated.

This individual had been put in an invidious position. By having his name connected to Morrison and his WeChat posts, Ji was running the risk of being detained by Chinese authorities. For what it’s worth—and that’s not much considering the reputation of the rag—one propagandist at the Global Times, citing an unnamed source, claimed there was a falling out between Ji and the agency.

Second, it’s possible that Ji and the unnamed agency he works for were leaned on by one or more organs of the Chinese party-state to offload the account in order to embarrass the prime minister and hamper his efforts at re-election.

On balance, it’s this second scenario—that a decision had been made by the Chinese Communist Party to deplatform Morrison—that seems much more likely. How else can we explain WeChat parent company Tencent’s intransigence when the PM’s office reached out to it to try to regain control of the account? [Source]

The upcoming federal election plays an outsized role in Australian lawmakers’ hawkish narrative about Morrison’s inaccessible account. His fellow Liberal Party members Paterson and Liu both referenced the “election year” timing as a particular reason why “foreign interference” was unacceptable. However, ASPI’s Ryan had publicly warned the government back in 2019 about the risk of being kicked off Chinese social media for being registered under someone else’s name. Morrison had ample time to decry foreign interference, Ryan noted, calling into question the timing of the Liberal Party’s outburst. 

This is not the first time that Morrison has tried to leverage Chinese social media for electoral success. In December, just before the upcoming Australian elections, Morrison joined TikTok, despite having previously considered banning the app in Australia, and having criticized it in the past for “connecting right back to China.” Some observers also criticized his decision to disable comments, duets, and mentions on his TikTok account, and to only permit likes and follows. 

While Morrison and his party may have made media hay out of claiming that his account was censored, the incident has revived concerns about the potential threats that Chinese social media apps could pose to democratic elections. A 2021 survey found that over 50 percent of Chinese Australians use WeChat as a news source, and Chinese Australians comprise up to 15 percent of voters in battleground districts of Sydney and Melbourne. WeChat is known to spread pro-CCP propaganda and misinformation, which carries the potential to sway voters’ opinions and influence electoral contests. In October, WeChat told an Australian parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference that it would appoint an Australian counsel to tackle the issue of misinformation, but that measure may not be enough to help WeChat avoid further government scrutiny. 

As for other Australian politicians, opposition leader Athony Albanese still has access to his official WeChat account, but as ASPI’s Ryan points out, the registered account owner is a Chinese national in that case too, meaning that Albanese is not the official owner of his own WeChat account. Asked about the CCP’s preferences for the upcoming Australian election, Australian National University research fellow Graeme Smith stated: “They really couldn’t care less who wins the election … They don’t care who wins as long as people don’t trust democracy.”


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