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As the election approaches, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison loses control of his WeChat Chinese account

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, June 15, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Politicians alleged on Monday that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party lost access to his official WeChat social media account months ago, claiming censorship, but the account is still functioning and now promotes Chinese life in Australia, thanks to a new Chinese administrator.

The news: Since 2019, Australia’s two major political parties have used Tencent Holdings Ltd’s social media platform to engage with Chinese-origin Australian voters in hotly contested electorates, despite rising diplomatic tensions with China.

A view of the “Australia China New Life” WeChat account, formerly Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official account, with the first article dated from July 9, 2021, is seen in this screen grab obtained from social media on January 24, 2022. Social Media Website/via REUTERS
  • With a national election due in May, the government would have hoped to use Morrison’s account to promote its policies during the Chinese New Year festivities, which begin on February 1.
  • The prime minister’s office has made several fruitless requests to WeChat to restore access to the account, the most recent of which was on Jan. 10, according to a source familiar with the situation who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
  • Tencent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What happened: Outsourced agencies put up official WeChat accounts for both the Liberals and the main opposition Labor Party’s leaders. According to WeChat records and a government source, the Scott Morrison account was registered in 2019 under the name of a Chinese individual in mainland China as the account operator.

  • It originally advertised big statements on the economy or the COVID-19 epidemic, for example, translated into Chinese, and featured Morrison’s portrait.
  • However, in January, the account was renamed ‘Australia China New Life,’ and it stated that it would provide information about life in Australia.
  • The account registration is now tied to a technological business in Fujian province called Fuzhou 985.
An Australian flag is pictured at its embassy in Beijing, China January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

What they’re saying: The episode was an example of “censorship” and “foreign intervention,” according to Liberal Senator James Paterson, Chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

  • “There’s 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent who overwhelmingly use this service and now can no longer access news and information from their Prime Minister,” he said on Australian radio on Monday.
  • “Yet they can still gain access to critiques of the government, attacks on the government by the (Labor) Opposition Leader,” he added.
  • Fergus Ryan, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said having the Prime Minister’s WeChat account registered under the name of a Chinese citizen was “always risky and ill-advised”, and appeared to be a breach of WeChat rules.
  • “Any account set up in this way can be shut down at a moment’s notice,” he said.

During a political spat between Canberra and Beijing over an image of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan in December 2020, Scott Morrison’s WeChat account was momentarily suspended.

A note from WeChat surfaced in the 2020 incident, stating that the information had breached regulations, including distorting historical events and confusing the people.

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