Scott Morrison WeChat: new owner amazed account entrusted to ‘single person’ in China

The new owner of Scott Morrison’s WeChat account has expressed disbelief that it had been entrusted to an individual in China – and is now considering shutting it down amid a growing political storm.

Earlier this month, subscribers to the Australian prime minister’s official WeChat profile were notified the account had been sold to the Fuzhou 985 Information Technology Co Ltd and had been renamed “Australian Chinese New Life”.

The account’s new owners have not yet posted any content, despite claims by a News Corp tabloid that it had been “rebranded as a pro-Beijing propaganda outfit”.

Some members of Morrison’s Liberal party are now calling on Australian politicians to boycott WeChat, citing concerns about potential foreign interference. The platform has been used by both major Australian political parties to connect with the Chinese-Australian community.

Huang Aipeng, the legal representative for the Fuzhou software development firm, told Guardian Australia he only learned on Monday that the account belonged to Morrison.

“When I was first told that this account belonged to Morrison, I didn’t believe it at all,” he said on Tuesday. “How could a big head of state have handed over his WeChat account to a single person to manage?”

Huang categorically denied any allegations of foreign interference. “I’ve had absolutely no contact over here with any kind of government-related body,” he said.

Huang said he bought the account for his company as a formal business transaction in keeping with Wechat’s platform migration rules. He bought it directly from an acquaintance with the surname Ji, who could not be contacted.

Huang said he had bought the account because it had a high number of followers, and had intended to provide Chinese-Australians with “practical lifestyle information”.

Huang would not disclose how much he paid for the account, but said the transfer was finalised in January.

There have been no posts on Morrison’s former account since 9 July, when the prime minister responded to the NSW lockdown announcement by promoting the $500 Covid disaster payment.

Fuzhou 985 Information Technology Co Ltd was founded in 2015. A listed website with a similar name, which describes itself as an “authoritative betting platform” for live sports and gaming, was not associated with the firm, Huang said.

“I never imagined this account would have anything to do with the Australian government,” he said.

“Now that I understand the situation, I might shut down the account.”

The Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, directly accused the Chinese government of involvement in the takeover of Morrison’s account.

“The fact that a leader of a democratic country can’t have an uninterrupted presence on a major media platform, social media platform, I think says a lot about the approach of the Chinese government and it’s unacceptable,” Dutton said on Tuesday.

Dutton said Australia wanted a “peaceful, pleasant relationship” with the Chinese government, but added: “I’m not going to ignore the attributes of the Communist regime, which is involved in dissemination of disinformation and ultimately, in this case, interfering with the prime minister’s WeChat account.”

The comments came a day after a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said: “The accusation of China interference is nothing but unfounded denigration and smear.”

WeChat’s owner, the Chinese tech giant Tencent, said there was “no evidence of any hacking or third-party intrusion” of Morrison’s account, and it “appears to be a dispute over account ownership”.

“The account in question was originally registered by a PRC [People’s Republic of China] individual and was subsequently transferred to its current operator, a technology services company – and it will be handled in accordance with our platform rules,” Tencent said.

Analysts say “subscription accounts” on WeChat require registration by a Chinese national.

An alternative option is a “service account”, which does not require a Chinese national third-party to register, but it may be less attractive to politicians because it allows fewer “push-notification-enabled articles”, according to Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Ryan on Tuesday cited records indicating the WeChat account of the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was also linked to a Chinese national, which could place him “in exactly the same boat that Scott Morrison is in”.

“That means that the woman from Jiangsu province who appears to be linked to Anthony Albanese’s WeChat account could at any time be pressured, be persuaded or decide on her own accord to shut down or sell the account, and that situation is untenable,” Ryan said in an interview.

“It would be my hope that both the Labor and Liberal parties agree to boycott WeChat.”

A Lowy Institute survey of 1,040 adults in Australia who self-identify as of Chinese heritage conducted found two-thirds of those polled used WeChat either “often” or “sometimes” to read Chinese-language news. That research was conducted in November 2020.

Ryan said it was in the interests of Australian democracy that, as much as possible, the political discussion with citizens “doesn’t go through that prism of the Chinese censorship apparatus” because that would “skew the discourse”.

“WeChat certainly is an important tool for Chinese Australians to stay in contact with family and friends in the PRC, but it is essentially an extension of the Great Firewall outside of China,” Ryan said.

“People outside China using WeChat are essentially in a bubble that is highly censored and heavily surveilled.”

Guardian Australia asked Morrison’s office whether it had ever tried to secure a WeChat account without a Chinese national being an intermediary.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said: “That option was not made available to us despite being asked by Tencent for and providing proof in 2020 the account was managed on behalf of the prime minister.”

Albanese said on Monday he would be happy to speak directly with Morrison about any potential security concerns.

In December 2020, Morrison brushed off a decision by WeChat to censor his post complaining that the dispute over a Chinese official’s “post of a false image of an Australian soldier does not diminish our respect for and appreciation of our Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China”.

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