Prime Minister Scott Morrison had an official account on WeChat, but he didn’t own it.
Last week, several Liberal MPs called for a boycott of WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms, after the account was reportedly “hijacked”.
The incident comes as relations with Beijing are at an historic low and right before the arrival of China’s new ambassador to Canberra.
Morrison set up the account to better engage with Chinese-Australian voters ahead of the 2019 election.
But, ahead of the 2022 election, he has lost control of the account, disconnecting him from 76,000 followers.
On top of this, the rhetoric about “foreign interference” from his ministers could alienate the very community he had hoped to win over.
What’s the difference between WeChat and Weixin?
WeChat is a super-app from tech giant Tencent that has more than 1.2 billion active users around the world, about 1 million of them in Australia.
However, many Australians don’t know that WeChat is actually two apps in one system — WeChat and Weixin.
WeChat is not just the English name of Weixin, but a specific app that targets overseas users who register their accounts with non-Chinese mobile numbers.
Weixin, which is incorporated in the same platform, is for users with a Chinese mobile phone number. It is where China’s laws and censorship take effect.
It is very similar to what another Chinese tech giant — Byte Dance — does for its apps TikTok and Douyin. The latter is known as the Chinese version that is only geographically available in Chinese app stores.
So why didn’t Morrison just get a WeChat account, rather than Weixin, and avoid the risk?
It’s because foreign politicians are not eligible for official WeChat accounts — which can send alerts to followers. But they can still get an account via a Chinese national on Weixin, which is a grey area in the platform’s policy.
While he could have a personal WeChat account, it’s a bit like having a personal Facebook account — you can interact with friends only.
In comparison, an official WeChat account on Weixin is more like a Facebook page people can subscribe to.
On Weixin, the Prime Minister’s official account is subject to Beijing’s censorship — and in fact, one of his posts was censored in December 2020.
Mr Morrison’s Weixin account was registered under the name of a Chinese citizen known only as Mr Ji in January 2019, before our last election.
It is unclear who made the decision to operate an account linked to a Chinese citizen’s ID — the Prime Minister’s Office declined to answer the ABC’s questions about this in 2019.
It’s worth noting the leader for the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, also has an account under a Chinese citizen’s name.
It appears a Chinese agency registered the account on the Prime Minister’s behalf, circumventing the platform’s rules and operating in a grey zone that poses risks for both Morrison and the Chinese citizen.
RMIT professor Haiqing Yu said while some people might interpret the incident as an act of censorship by the Chinese government, “other people say this is a sign of Morrison’s incompetence.”
“Why didn’t his advisors advise him at the very beginning — his account was a Weixin account, not a WeChat account?” she said.
Was it really hijacked?
Highlighting these inappropriate registration methods doesn’t in any way legitimise China’s censorship or surveillance in the digital space.
But choosing to set up the account in this way may once again hurt Australia’s national image and have consequences for the agency in China.
The Chinese citizen who set up the account could be punished or questioned by Beijing, as their operations could be interpreted as risking China’s national security on a heavily monitored and censored app.
Beijing could also accuse the Prime Minister of infringing on their digital sovereignty.
Because Morrison didn’t own the account — Mr Ji did — the Chinese national was entitled to transfer the ownership of the account to anyone else, according to Weixin’s policy.
However, Weixin and WeChat’s policies do state that official accounts shouldn’t be sold, which appears to have happened in this case.
Several Liberal MPs are calling for a boycott of WeChat, while Senator James Paterson labelled it an example of “foreign interference”.
“We cannot allow a foreign authoritarian government to interfere in our democracy and set the terms of public debate in Australia,” he said.
Parent company Tencent said there was no evidence of hacking and it appeared to be an ownership dispute.
There have been concerns about Chinese foreign interference in the past, and it could be the case again this time, but so far there is no evidence that the Chinese government moved to interfere or deplatform the Prime Minister.
Ironically, Beijing could accuse Australia of foreign interference given our politicians broke the rules on Weixin, with the aim of spreading Australian propaganda.
That’s not to say Beijing is innocent in this affair — just to point out that the Chinese Communist Party could take Australian politicians to task for side-stepping the rules.
Disengaging the Australian Chinese community
In his first post on the platform, Morrison said he “hoped to establish closer channels of communication with Chinese Australians through the WeChat account”.
“I attach great importance to the contribution made by the Chinese Australians to our country,” Morrison wrote.
Boycotting WeChat now is not a solution — and it could inflame anxieties about the platform and sideline the Australian Chinese community.
With almost all Western social media platforms blocked by Beijing, WeChat is the last platform where everyday Chinese Australians can have daily conversations with their families inside China’s Great Firewall.
Jumping to the conclusion of “foreign interference” exposed that our government is neither capable of dealing with China, nor the Chinese Australian community.
In WeChat groups where Chinese Australians discuss politics, some questioned why Australian politicians rushed to make claims before they had solid evidence.
One user said the Liberal party members who made the claims about foreign interference acted like “a thief posing as a judge” because of the unorthodox way Morrison’s team had set up the official page.
The ABC has approached Morrison’s office for comment.
The accusation of foreign interference could also hurt the interest of thousands of businesses on the platform — including retail companies such as David Jones and Myer — which invested in creating business channels to connect with Chinese consumers.
Gladys Liu, the only Chinese-speaking MP in Australia, has said she won’t use the platform until the issue is resolved, which could impact her ability to serve a community that relies heavily on WeChat.
Concerns over WeChat’s security issues and censorship mechanisms have existed for a long time, and Liu should have called for regulating WeChat for the sake of her voters.
Calls to regulate the Chinese social media platform have gone unheard by the Australian Parliament, even though US tech giants such as Facebook were subject to new Australian regulations to tackle fake news last year.
The rhetoric over the fracas also casts a shadow over the platform, which many Chinese Australians use not just to communicate but for banking and shopping, at a time when the community has already been caught in the middle of geopolitical tensions and pandemic-fuelled racism.
The truth is the account was never owned by Morrison. Acquiring it through a backchannel and then implying nefarious intent from the Chinese government without evidence when he lost control of it, could push away the voters he was trying to draw in.