MELBOURNE, Australia – When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened his public WeChat account in 2019, it was in the run-up to a general election. He said it would allow him to communicate directly with Chinese-Australians and better understand the issues affecting them.
Reports surfaced on Monday that not only had Mr Morrison been suspended from his account with the hugely popular Chinese messaging app since last year, his photo had also been removed and the account is now under the control of a Chinese company under a new one Surname.
Mr. Morrison’s posts are still alive, as are his 76,000 followers. But the episode, first reported by The Daily Telegraph in Australia sparked an angry reaction from members of Mr Morrison’s Conservative party, with some describing the loss of the WeChat account as a kidnapping.
Other Conservative politicians have accused the Chinese social media platform of trying to disrupt Australia’s upcoming general election by stifling freedom of expression – believed to be Mr Morrison’s. The episode also sparked debate over whether lawmakers should even use WeChat to communicate with the country’s 1.2 million residents of Chinese descent. A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison declined to comment.
It all added up to yet another tense chapter in the shattered diplomatic relationship 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 Explanation that the seizure of Mr Morrison’s account was an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to “interfere with 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 The news of his rival’s WeChat troubles was “really worrying” but he was short on promising to boycott the platform.
There is no direct evidence that the Communist Party was involved in the loss of Mr. Morrison’s account. When senior Chinese officials get in trouble with Beijing, their social media accounts usually disappear and censors delete all references to them or their posts.
WeChat is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent. With 1.26 billion users worldwide, the app is popular with Chinese residents and members of the Chinese diaspora, who use it to chat with family and friends, read the news, make payments and more. It has been used to spread Chinese government misinformation and propaganda, and is known for censoring content. President Donald J. Trump sought to ban WeChat, along with Chinese-owned TikTok, from operating in the United States. said it was a national security threat. A federal judge later issued a restraining order.
In a statement confirming the changes to Mr. Morrison’s account, Tencent said, “There is no evidence of hacking or third-party interference. This appears to be an account ownership dispute.”
But much remained unknown about how the transmission had taken place. In order for a WeChat public account to change hands, the original owner must fill out a paper form, have it notarized and upload it to WeChat. according to Tencent’s website.
China’s Cyberspace Administration, which oversees the country’s internet affairs, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a regular news conference Monday night that he did not know the details of Mr Morrison’s account, but added: “The allegation of Chinese interference is nothing but unfounded slander and defamation. We have no interest in interfering with other countries.”
Mr. Paterson said that Mr. Morrison’s team had problems 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 outlined economic support for residents who had lost their jobs due to pandemic lockdowns.
Due to WeChat’s rules requiring public accounts to be registered by a Chinese national, Mr Morrison had his account registered through a Chinese intermediary.
The account name suddenly changed from ScottMorrison2019 to Aus-Chinese New Living in October 2021, according to publicly available information. In November, Tencent confirmed 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 information available to view. The account now says it provides information for Chinese overseas about life in Australia.
Tencent confirmed the transfer. “The account in question was originally registered by an individual from the PRC and subsequently transferred to its current operator, a technology services company,” the statement said, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China.
Huang Aipeng, a legal representative of Fuzhou 985, said in a phone interview that the company now actually owns the WeChat account. But he insisted he had no idea its previous owner had been the leader of Australia.
“We didn’t know what this public account was being used for,” said Mr. Huang.
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 refused to say who he bought the account from.
This isn’t the first time Mr Morrison has clashed with the Chinese social media giant. In 2020, a WeChat post from the prime minister criticized a manipulated image posted on Twitter by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. WeChat censored the Prime Minister’s post, saying it was against its guidelines.
More broadly, Canberra accuses Beijing of meddling in Australia’s 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 goods, including wine and barley. Australia has also spoken out about crackdowns on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and joined the 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 vowed to take down WeChat. Among them was Hong Kong-born MP Gladys Liu, whose constituency includes voters of Chinese heritage.
“Particularly in an election year, this kind of interference in our political processes is unacceptable and this matter should be taken extremely seriously by all Australian politicians,” she said in a Explanation. “Due to these concerns, I will no longer use my official or personal WeChat accounts to communicate until the platform explains itself.”
Alex Hawke, the Immigration Secretary, has not used his WeChat account since 2019. But he, too, said he had “no intention of using it in the near future.”
Yan Zhuang reports from Melbourne, Australia, and John Liu from Taipei, Taiwan.