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China accused of hijacking Australian PM's WeChat account

MPs have called the move censorship and have demanded for a boycott of the social media platform

The Australian prime minister’s WeChat account has allegedly been taken over by a small Chinese technology company, prompting MPs to call for a boycott of the social media account.

Scott Morrison used the account to post information on his policies in Mandarin targeted at Australian voters of Chinese ethnic origin and had 76,000 followers, according to Reuters. Australian politicians said the PM lost access to the account several months ago, claiming that the move represented censorship, on top of growing diplomatic tensions between Australia and China, with elections to be held by May.

In January, the account’s name was changed to “Australia China New Life” by its new owner, Fuzhou 985 Technology, based in Fujian province, which told followers the account would now promote Chinese life in Australia.

An employee from the company told Reuters that it was not aware the account was previously connected to Morrison and that the transfer of ownership was conducted with a Chinese male national living in Fuzhou. The employee added that the company bought the account due to its large following and the fact its target audience was the Chinese community in Australia.

WeChat accounts have been set up for the Liberal and Labour party leaders through outsourced agencies, with Morrison registering for his account in 2019 using the name of a Chinese citizen as its account operator. The agency lost access to the account last July, reportedly asking for it to be returned.

This matches the findings of Australia Policy Institute senior analyst Fergus Ryan who discovered in May 2019 that at least a dozen Australian politicians, including the prime minister, were using WeChat accounts registered to Chinese citizens.

“Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership — the account in question was originally registered by a PRC individual and was subsequently transferred to its current operator, a technology services company — and it will be handled in accordance with our platform rules,” a spokesperson from Tencent, WeChat’s owner, told IT Pro.

“Tencent is committed to upholding the integrity of our platform and the security of all users accounts, and we will continue to look into this matter.”

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Gladys Liu, the Liberal party MP for Chisholm, called the removal of Morrison from WeChat deeply disappointing and said it raised serious concerns of political interference. She also underlined that opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s account is still active and features posts criticising the government.

“In an election year especially, this sort of interference in our political processes is unacceptable, and this matter should be taken extremely seriously by all Australian politicians,” said Liu.

Liu added that she will no longer be using her official or personal WeChat accounts to communicate until the platform explains itself.

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