China’s Tencent Allowed Sale of Australian PM’s 76,000 WeChat Followers

It’s election interference. Tencent and WeChat should be banned.
By Anders Corr
Anders Corr
Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).
January 26, 2022Updated: January 31, 2022

News Analysis

Australia’s conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, got a shock when China’s WeChat social media app gave his 76,000 followers two lousy choices: opt out within 24 hours and get your followers deleted along with Morrison’s account reassignment, or get signed up automatically to the replacement, called “Australia China New Life.”

A post delivered to Morrison’s WeChat followers said, “Scott Morrison, the official account you followed before, has transferred all business and functions to this official account.”

Morrison, of the Liberal Party, transferred nothing. His followers were stolen.

Clare Armstrong, who broke the story in the Daily Telegraph on Jan. 23, claims the new account is a “pro-Beijing propaganda outfit.”

James Paterson, a Liberal member of the Australian parliament who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, told an Australian radio station, “This is pretty clearly and transparently an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] to censor the Australian Prime Minister and prevent him from campaigning to the Chinese Australian community.”

A Chinese businessman from Fujian Province claimed to have purchased the account.

“I am a businessman. The account is legitimate, the content is legitimate, and the price is reasonable,” said Huang Aipeng, the CEO of Fuzhou 985 Information Technology. “The rest I don’t really care about.”

Huang says he bought the account from a “Mr. Ji” in November, and claims not to know who Morrison is. Huang planned to delete Morrison’s content, which is mostly COVID-19 updates and press releases, and refuses to give back the account, as WeChat, owned by Tencent, approved the transfer.

In a comment published by Brisbane Times, Huang deferred to Tencent on whether to return the followers to Morrison.

“I’m afraid to publicise anything since this incident because I’m still waiting for the next step,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out if Tencent will ever move this account to Australian Prime Minister, but I doubt it.”

Australian cybersecurity expert Robert Potter told ABC that “When Tencent did not return the account, they made a corporate decision to de-platform the Prime Minister, which will have a domestic political impact.”

Some conservative politicians in Australia, including Paterson and Gladys Liu, support a political boycott of WeChat until it returns the followers.

Fergus Ryan, an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) expert on the political use of WeChat, also supports the boycott. In 2020, he presciently argued that “With the next federal election likely to be held in 2022, now would be a good time for the Liberal and Labor parties to mutually agree to stop using WeChat as a campaign channel and to start work on bipartisan legislation to properly regulate this influential platform.”

The unceremonious cutting of Morrison from WeChat makes it much more difficult for him to connect with Australia’s 1.2 million Chinese-Australians, who tend to use the Chinese app over others because it allows them to communicate with family in China. WeChat is owned by China’s Tencent, to which Beijing has given preferential access to China’s social media market. In Australia, there are approximately 1 million regular WeChat users.

logo of Tencent
A logo of Tencent is seen during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, China, on Nov. 23, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Unlike the conservative prime minister, Labor Party candidates have kept their accounts, from which they regularly critique conservatives to Australian voters.

Beijing apologists can point to the fact that full-function Labor Party WeChat accounts are (anomalously, as Ryan points out) not registered to any individual. In their eyes, that apparently gives the sale of Morrison’s followers, who officially belonged to a third party, some shred of legitimacy.

This interpretation sadly lets Beijing off the hook, but few would argue that the regime could not easily have reversed the sale, or otherwise ensured better service for the prime minister.

Instead, as Foreign Affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic notes, Tencent has simply issued a statement claiming that “it’s a dispute over account ownership” and will be looked into.

If the CCP, which controls Tencent, really wanted to reinstate the account to its legitimate owner—a prime minister during an election year who did the hard work of amassing 76,000 followers—then it could.

Therefore, the sale—most likely backed, incentivized, and allowed by the regime in Beijing—is an outrageous interference in Australia’s electoral politics.

The preferential treatment given to Labor in Australia suits Beijing, because Liberals (as Australians call their conservatives) are buying nuclear-propelled submarines and countering the CCP’s lies by demanding a proper investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing wants to punish Australia’s conservatives, and removing Morrison’s WeChat account is a good way to do that. It will likewise deter other politicians globally, who rely on WeChat voters, from taking too tough a stand against Beijing.

Unlike conservative politicians in Australia, who have rallied around their prime minister with the boycott of WeChat until the company explains itself, the opposition left-of-center Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has only said he would confer with Morrison on the issue. He is, after all, advantaged by keeping that WeChat edge that Beijing handed him. What Beijing will get in return if he and other Laborites are elected, we may find out later.

Beijing’s election interference in Australia should be more than denounced. Its control over who can use the platform, and the algorithms that determine how often each candidate’s posts are viewed, give political parties that it prefers—an edge.

A political boycott of WeChat will smoke out Beijing’s friends in the Labor Party who continue to use the platform. But it does not get to the crux of the problem, which is control from a totalitarian China of what people in democratic Australia read.

Letting the app into Australia in the first place was the initial mistake, made because of an old free trade with China ideology that was blind to the CCP’s extraordinary injustices and strategy to use that commerce against democracy. Australia’s allies have made the same mistake.

Things are different now. As long as Beijing bans Twitter, Facebook, and Google, and has plans for a global and totalitarian hegemony, as recognized by most China experts now, we should rectify our mistakes and ban WeChat, along with other Tencent products.

While banning Tencent in response to its political interference could cause a backlash among Chinese voters in Australia, letting it off the hook appeases Beijing’s bullying and perpetuates an uneven playing field for Western social media companies and conservative politicians, all of which are discriminated against by Beijing.

The real issue goes beyond Morrison’s account to not just reciprocity, but ethics. It is unethical to allow Beijing to use our freedoms against us, while shutting down those freedoms for Chinese citizens on its own territory. The CCP is gaming our freedoms for its own advantage, and the current prime minister of Australia, who is relatively tough on China, could lose his position as a consequence. That would unacceptably degrade Australia’s defenses.

As good allies, we must change our own culture. There should be no more allowance for totalitarian social media to skew voter opinion against freedom. WeChat and China’s official social media accounts, at a minimum, should be banned from Australia and its allies. The Morrison case is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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