Australian prime minister loses control of WeChat account

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lost control of his account on the Chinese-owned social media platform WeChat and a lawmaker on Monday accused China's leaders of political interference.

Morrison’s 76,000 WeChat followers were notified his page had been renamed “Australian Chinese new life” earlier this month and his photograph had been removed, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported. The changes were made without the government’s knowledge, the report said.

Morrison’s office declined to comment on the report.

In response to a question from The Associated Press, WeChat's parent company Tencent said that there was “no evidence of any hacking or third-party intrusion," related to Morrison's account.

“Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership," the company said.

In accordance with Chinese regulations, Morrison’s public account was registered with a Chinese citizen and was later transferred to its current operator, the company said. It identified the present owner of the account only as a “technology services company," adding that it would “continue to look into this matter further."

Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security Chair James Paterson said WeChat had not immediately replied to an Australian government request that the prime minister's account be restored.

Paterson accused the Chinese Communist Party of censoring the prime minister with Australia's elections due by May.

Paterson, who is a member of Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party, called on all lawmakers to boycott the platform.

“What the Chinese government has done by shutting down an Australian account is foreign interference of Australian democracy in an election year,” Paterson said.

Paterson said it was concerning that 1.2 million Chinese Australians who use the platform couldn’t access news from the prime minister, but could still see criticisms of the government made by opposition leader Anthony Albanese.

Fergus Ryan, a Chinese social media expert with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, tweeted that Morrison was one of at least a dozen Australian politicians who use WeChat accounts now registered to Chinese citizens.

Liberal Party lawmaker and former diplomat Dave Sharma said the interference was likely sanctioned by the Chinese government.

Sharma said Morrison used WeChat to connect with Australia’s Chinese diaspora, but that ultimately the social media platform is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

“More likely than not it was state-sanctioned and it shows the attitude towards free speech and freedom of expression that comes out of Beijing,” Sharma said.

Graeme Smith, a China expert at the Australian National University, said it was unclear who was behind Morrison’s WeChat problems.

“I don’t think we know who’s behind this. I dare say we could safely say it was at least inspired by the China government,” Smith said.

Smith added he did not believe that Morrison’s WeChat problem was evidence that China would back Albanese’s center-left Labor Party at the next election.

“They really couldn’t care less who wins the election,” Smith said. “They don’t care who wins as long as people don’t trust democracy.”

Albanese said he would talk to Morrison about “any national security implications” of the prime minister's WeChat problem.

Morrison has had a vexed relationship with China since he replaced Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in 2018.

The Chinese have been critical of a new partnership involving Australia, Britain and the United States announced in September under which Australia will be provided with nuclear-powered submarines.