(Refiles to correct spelling of ‘minister’ in paragraph 1)
By Kirsty Needham and Eduardo Baptista
SYDNEY (Reuters) -A little-known Chinese technology company that took over a WeChat social media account set up for Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday it wanted to buy an account with a large fanbase in Australia, and was unaware it was his.
Australian politicians said Morrison’s office lost access to the account on the platform, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd, several months ago. The politicians claimed the move represented censorship amid growing diplomatic tensions https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/australia-says-chinas-alarming-actions-odds-with-peaceful-rhetoric-2021-11-26 between Canberra and Beijing with a national election to be held in Australia by May.
The account, which bore Morrison’s photograph and posted information on his policies in Mandarin targeted at Australian voters of Chinese ethnic origin, had 76,000 followers.
The account was renamed ‘Australia China New Life’ in January by its new Chinese owner, Fuzhou 985 Technology, based in Fujian province, which notified followers the account would instead promote Chinese life in Australia.
An employee from Fuzhou 985 Technology, who only gave his surname as Huang, told Reuters by telephone was not aware the account was previously connected to Morrison. He said the transfer of ownership was conducted with a Chinese male national living in Fuzhou, whose identity he declined to disclose.
“We thought this account had a large fanbase, so we decided to buy it,” said Huang, adding that the company was looking for an account whose target audience was the Chinese community in Australia. He declined to say how much his company had paid to take over the account.
Australia’s two major political parties have used the Chinese social media platform to communicate with Australian voters of Chinese ethnicity in tightly fought electorates since 2019. The ruling Liberal Party would have aimed to use the Morrison account to promote its policies during the Chinese New Year celebrations starting Feb. 1.
Both the Liberals and the main opposition Labor Party set up WeChat accounts for their leaders through outsourced agencies. The Scott Morrison account was registered in 2019 using the name of a Chinese citizen in mainland China as its account operator, WeChat records show and a government source confirmed.
The agency handling Morrison’s social media account lost access to it last July, and emailed WeChat on Jan. 10 saying it acted on behalf of the Prime Minister, and requesting the account be returned, two sources with knowledge of the matter said. They declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
No response was given by Tencent, the sources confirmed.
In a statement on Monday, Tencent said, “This appears to be a dispute over account ownership – the account in question was originally registered by a PRC (Chinese) individual and was subsequently transferred to its current operator, a technology services company.”
Tencent added the dispute would be handled “in accordance with our platform rules”, and it would look into the matter further.
In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press conference on Monday that, “The issue of Australian politicians’ WeChat accounts is between them and WeChat.”
Meanwhile Liberal Senator James Paterson, Chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, told media the incident was an example of “censorship” and “foreign interference”.
“There’s 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent who overwhelmingly use this service and now can no longer access news and information from their Prime Minister,” he said on Australian radio on Monday.
Fergus Ryan, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said having the Prime Minister’s WeChat account registered under the name of a Chinese citizen was “always risky and ill-advised”, and appeared to be a breach of WeChat rules.
At Fuzhou 985 Technology, Huang said the company planned to delete the contents of the account, but would wait.
“Originally we wanted to delete [Morrison’s previous posts], now we are faced with this situation, we can only wait for Tencent’s final reply,” he said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Eduardo Baptista and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)