Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lost control of his WeChat account after its original Chinese owner sold it to a third-party who claims he didn’t know anything about Morrison.
News of the missing WeChat account sparked outrage on Monday with the Daily Telegraph saying the PM’s account – which his office used to communicate with Chinese-Australians – had been co-opted to “post propaganda”.
The WeChat account had been re-named “Australian Chinese New Life” and changed the description to say it was now providing information about living in Australia for the Chinese community.
It also said the account for Scott Morrison “has transferred all business and functions to this official account” and had not made a post, propaganda or otherwise, since July last year.
Liberal Senator James Paterson took the opportunity to appear on talkback radio where one host said the Prime Minister’s account “was hacked” before Paterson suggested the Chinese Communist Party was behind the account swap.
Especially egregious, Paterson claimed, was the fact that the WeChat account of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese remained active.
As he did the rounds on favourable broadcast networks, Paterson sold the story that this was an act of “foreign interference”.
“My view is, given that WeChat is such a closely controlled company by the Chinese Communist Party, that this amounts to foreign interference in our democracy,” he said.
“And in an election year, no less.”
But reports soon emerged that complicated the simple anti-Chinese narrative promoted by the Liberal party and its media cheerleaders – who had also called for a boycott of the social media platform.
Whose account is it anyway?
WeChat has limitations on who can use the domestic version of its service, which falls under stricter content moderation policies, and does not allow registration from international users.
In order to skirt around these rules, Australian politicians have tended to register their WeChat accounts through Chinese citizens.
This is a practice the ABC called out in 2019 as a potential breach of WeChat’s terms of service that could see politicians, like the Prime Minister, lose access to their accounts if WeChat decided to crackdown on its misuse.
Morrison’s account was initially setup through a Chinese agency and had been registered to a certain Mr Ji from Fujian province.
It was then transferred to a company called Fuzhou 985 Information Technology where the account, which had gathered around 76,000 followers, was rebranded.
SBS Mandarin spoke with the new account holder, Huang Aipeng, who said the account was transferred as “purely legal business behaviour”.
“It was transferred from the person in charge of the original official account,” Huang said.
“I do not know anything about the account before.
“My purchase of this account has nothing to do with the government, and it is purely a legal business transaction.”
Chinese tech giant Tencent, which owns WeChat, corroborated Huang’s story by saying there was “no evidence of any third-party intrusion”.
“Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership […] and will be handled in accordance with our platform rules,” Tencent said in a statement.