Australian politicians are facing calls to boycott WeChat after Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to be blocked from using the Chinese social media platform.
As first reported by NewsCorp, Mr Morrison’s account had been taken over and rebranded, drawing accusations of foreign interference.
WeChat has become an increasingly important campaign tool for Australian politicians to connect with Chinese speaking community members.
But independent researcher Alex Joske said the risks posed by the social media platform meant WeChat should no longer be relied on given the national security concerns.
“Politicians in especially electorates with large Chinese speaking communities have started to view WeChat as an indispensable part of their campaigning,” he told SBS News.
“[But] political parties and the government shouldn’t be letting the serious risk of political interference and surveillance through WeChat continue.”
It's understood requests by the prime minister's office to have the account restored have been ignored.
The account had been rebranded "New Life for Chinese Australians", and the description changed to "providing living in Australia information for the Chinese community".
But SBS News Chinese has been in contact with the new operator of the account who claims he acquired it legitimately.
Aipeng Huang, under whose name Fuzhou 985 Information Technology Ltd was registered, said that he knew nothing about the background of this account, and the transfer was “a completely legal commercial activity”.
“The original owner transferred it to us. I personally was not aware of anything about the account (prior to the transfer),” Mr Huang said when explaining how they acquired this account.
Chair of the powerful parliamentary intelligence and security committee Liberal Senator James Paterson earlier backed calls for Australian politicians to boycott the network.
He said it appeared “very likely” WeChat had “stepped in and censored the prime minister” describing the platform has “tightly controlled by the Chinese communist party".
“I think that amounts to foreign interference in our democracy and in an election year no less,” he told SBS News.
In a significant move, Hong Kong-born Liberal MP Gladys Liu - whose Victorian seat of Chisholm includes a high proportion of Chinese Australians - on Monday afternoon said she would no longer use WeChat in her campaigning.
“The removal of Prime Minister Scott Morrison from the social media site WeChat is deeply disappointing and raises serious concerns of political interference,” she said in a statement.
“In an election year, this sort of interference in our political processes is unacceptable, and this is a matter that should be taken seriously by all Australian politicians.”
Natasha Kassam, Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Lowy Institute, said she expected more politicians to also consider boycotting the platform.
“We have already seen a few Australian politicians say that they will no longer use WeChat [and] I would expect that number to continue,” she told SBS News.
“Candidates need to consider the best way to engage with those voters and we need more Chinese language media that aren’t linked to the Chinese party-state.”
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese's account has not been disrupted.
But Mr Albanese told 4BC radio he would seek further advice on how to respond to the blocking of the prime minister’s account.
“I’m more than happy to have a chat with Scott Morrison about these issues and also with our national security agencies,” he said.
Associate Professor Michael Jensen of the University of Canberra said he didn’t expect the takeover of Mr Morrison’s account to have a significant electoral impact given the timing.
“I would be more worried about [something] happening in the last weeks of the election where maybe voters who don’t pay a lot of attention to politics start thinking about these concerns,” he said.
“If something happened then that’s when it would become most concerning.”
WeChat official accounts, which are similar to official pages on Facebook, allow public figures, media companies and businesses to connect to more than 1.2 billion active users who mainly reside in mainland China.
When Mr Morrison opened an official account in 2019, the social media platform required the owner to either supply the ID of a Chinese national or tie their account to a business registered in China.
The prime minister's office had used a Chinese agency to register the account.
A government source confirmed the agency had been locked out of the account since July 2021, but had made several approaches to WeChat about regaining access.
On 10 January a letter requesting the account be restored to Mr Morrison’s name went unanswered.
When asked about a boycott, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said WeChat should restore access to the prime minister's account and allow all politicians to use the platform.
"It's something we would like to see rectified because it's a method of communication to the Australian Chinese community, which is very important," he told reporters.
"It should be on offer to politicians of all political persuasions, it shouldn't be a political football. It's very, very disappointing to see the prime minister prevented from having that access."
But China analyst Professor John Fitzgerald, from Swinburne University, said he believed the blocking of Mr Morrison’s account had made a “mockery” of Australian politicians still using the service.
“It is no longer sustainable as a platform to be used in Australian public life,” he told SBS News.
“Let’s get serious. It is time to remove WeChat and other China-based social media platforms from the political playbook.”
WeChat's owner, Chinese tech giant Tencent, said "there is no evidence of any hacking or third-party intrusion".
"Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership," Tencent said in a statement.
"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."