In Australia, we all know Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It's a different story in China where the "great firewall of China" restricts parts of the Internet. Instead, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent dominate, with Tencent's WeChat being the most prominent social media and messaging app. And, due to its prominence in China, its reach has spread worldwide so others can communicate with their Chinese friends and family - or if you're a politician, your Chinese constituents.
Well, if you happen to be the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, your reach to Chinese constituents via WeChat hit an end with the PM's account allegedly taken over, then sold to a businessman who now promises to provide tips to new Australian arrivals from China.
Like other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, WeChat can distinguish an account as 'official' meaning you know it is genuinely who it says it is. For Scott Morrison to create an official WeChat page, which his office did in 2019, he needed to either tie the account to a Chinese-registered business or nominate the identity of a Chinese national who would operate the account. The Prime Minister's office chose to register his official WeChat account via a Chinese agency and a male Chinese citizen from Fujian became the official account holder named Mr. Ji.
All was fine for a couple of years, but in the last months, the PM's office noted their access to the account became spotty before suddenly they could no longer log in at all. The office reached out to Tencent for support but apparently, no support was forthcoming.
Instead, the PM's account turned back up as "Australian-Chinese New Life" with the message, "Thank you for your continued interest in our WeChat public account. Scott Morrison, the WeChat public account you previously followed, has moved all its operations and functions to this WeChat public account."
Huang Aipeng, CEO of Fuzhou 985 Information Technology, now operates the account and states he purchased the account because he wanted a platform with lots of followers. Specifically, he says he purchased the account from a Chinese national named Mr Ji, located in the city of Fuzhou within Fujian province. Aipeng states the transaction was purely based on social media numbers - the account having 75,000 followers - and has nothing to do with politics. "I don't even know who Morrison is, I saw the account has a lot of followers, so we bought it," he said.
Yet, how the account came to be up for sale and how the PM's office lost control is still unknown, at least, to the Government. On the surface, it appears the Government's own agent, Mr Ji, directly sold the account and, as the official account holder, the sale has been endorsed by Tencent.
Nevertheless, the Government is incensed and senior members of parliament have accused the Chinese government of foreign interference.
"WeChat is owned by Tencent, which is one of the most closely controlled, theoretically private companies in China," said James Paterson, chair of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee. "It censors the platform all over the world. It uses the platform to surveil and monitor the overseas Chinese community. It is very clearly a Chinese government action in my view."
"What the Chinese government has done by shutting down the Prime Minister's account is effectively foreign interference in our democracy in an election year," Paterson said.
Other government members from both sides have expressed concern and announced they will boycott WeChat until an explanation is received.
The ABC has identified 12 further Australian politicians using WeChat accounts registered in other people's names in China, including government ministers.