MELBOURNE, Australia – When Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia opened his public WeChat account in 2019, it was time leading up to the federal election. He says it will allow him to directly communicate with Chinese Australians and better understand the issues they care about.
On Monday, reports surfaced that not only had Mr Morrison had his account frozen on the hugely popular Chinese messaging app since last year, but that his photos had also been deleted and his account had been deleted. The account is now under the control of a Chinese company under a new name.
Mr Morrison’s posts are still present, as are his 76,000 followers. But the episode, originally reported by Daily telegram in Australia, prompted an angry response from members of Mr Morrison’s conservative party, with some calling the loss of the WeChat account an act of hijacking.
Other conservative politicians accuse the Chinese social media platform of trying to interfere in Australia’s upcoming federal election by suppressing free speech – presumably Mr Morrison’s. The episode also stirred up debate over whether lawmakers should use WeChat to communicate with the country’s 1.2 million residents of Chinese ancestry. A spokesman for Mr Morrison declined to comment.
It all leads to another tense chapter in the fracturing 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 statement. statement 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 the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, still has his WeChat account.
“We cannot allow a foreign authoritarian government to interfere in our democracy and set the terms of public debate in Australia,” Mr. Paterson said.
For his part, Mr. Albanese speak News of his rival’s WeChat affairs is of “real concern,” but he stopped short of promising a boycott of the platform.
There is no direct evidence that the Communist Party was involved in the loss of Mr. Morrison’s account. Usually, when top Chinese officials flee Beijing, their social media accounts disappear, with censors wiping out any references to them or their posts.
WeChat is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent. The app, with 1.26 billion users worldwide, is very popular with residents in China and members of the Chinese-Chinese community, who use it to chat with family and friends. , read news, make payments and more. It has been used to spread disinformation and propaganda by the Chinese government, and is known to censor content. President Donald J. Trump tried to ban WeChat, along with Chinese-owned TikTok, from operating in the United States, said it was a national security threat. A federal judge then issued an order.
In a statement confirming the changes to Mr Morrison’s account, Tencent said: “There is no evidence of any third-party hacking or intrusion. This appears to be an account ownership dispute. ”
But there are still many unknowns about how the transfer took place. For a public WeChat 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, the country’s agency in charge of internet affairs, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, speak At a regular news conference on Monday night that he did not know the specifics of Mr Morrison’s account, but added: “The allegation of Chinese interference is nothing but baseless smears and smears. . We are not and are not interested in meddling in other countries.”
Mr. Paterson speak that Mr. Morrison’s team started having 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 have lost their jobs due to the pandemic shutdown.
Due to WeChat’s rule that public accounts must be registered by a Chinese citizen, Mr Morrison registered his account through a Chinese intermediary.
The account’s name 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 information viewable. Okay. This account now provides information for overseas Chinese about life in Australia.
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Tencent has confirmed the transfer. “The account in question was originally registered by an individual of the People’s Republic of China and then transferred to its current operator, a technology services company,” it said in its statement. , using the abbreviation of the People’s Republic of China.
Huang Aipeng, the legal representative of Fuzhou 985, said in a phone interview that the company is indeed the owner of the WeChat account. But he insisted he did not know its previous owner was a leader of Australia.
“We don’t know what this public account is used for,” said Mr. Huang.
He explained that he bought the account – legally – 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 clashed with the Chinese social media giant. In 2020, a WeChat post by the prime minister criticized an image posted on Twitter by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s neck. 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, as 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 its crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and joined the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing to protest China’s human rights record.
With the loss of Mr Morrison’s account, some Australian officials have vowed to dismantle WeChat. Hong Kong-born MP Gladys Liu, whose constituency includes voters of Chinese background, is also among them.
“Especially in an election year, interference in our political processes is unacceptable and this issue should be taken extremely seriously by all Australian politicians,” she said in a statement. one statement. “Because of these concerns, I will no longer use my official or personal WeChat account to communicate until the platform is self-explanatory.”
Alex Hawke, the immigration minister, hasn’t used his WeChat account since 2019. But he also said he “doesn’t intend to use it in the near future”.
Yan Zhuang reported from Melbourne, Australia, and John Liu from Taipei, Taiwan.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/25/world/australia/scott-morrison-wechat-account.html How Scott Morrison lost control of his WeChat account