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China has vehemently denied any involvement in Prime Minister Scott Morrison losing his WeChat account as tensions with Australia flare once again.
Mr Morrison's WeChat account has been taken over, with a raft of politicians expressing support for a boycott on the app with fears Beijing is making attempts to interfere with domestic politics.
China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected such a claim, insisting China has "no interest" in interfering with other countries.
"The accusation of China interference is nothing but unfounded denigration and smear," he said.
Mr Morrison's account has now been rebranded as "Australian Chinese new life" and will "provide life information for overseas Chinese in Australia", the new description on the account says.
WeChat is China's biggest messaging app and offers a raft of services as well as incorporating a social media feed.
Yahoo News Australia understands the government was first unable to access the account in July last year, before it was rebranded in January this year and the government tried contacting WeChat multiple times to get the account back.
It has since been revealed the account was purchased by Chinese businessman Huang Aipeng who denied to the ABC he knew who the original owner of the account was and was merely attracted by its large following.
Western politicians often set up their WeChat accounts through Chinese agencies to circumnavigate WeChat's restrictions on foreign public accounts.
However speculation is rife the sale, by original owner, who the ABC identifies as Mr Ji, was involuntary and forced by Beijing.
Fears China forced takeover ahead of federal election
Liberal MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma said the takeover was "likely" sanctioned by the Chinese government.
Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security Chair James Paterson accused the Chinese Communist Party of censoring the prime minister with Australia’s elections due by May.
“What the Chinese government has done by shutting down an Australian account is foreign interference of Australian democracy in an election year,” Mr Paterson said.
Director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, Natasha Kassam told Yahoo News Australia the takeover was particularly concerning due to Beijing's tight control over tech companies in China.
"This situation is even more insidious because of the close relationship between companies like Tencent and the Party-state, and it course, because it is the account of an elected official."
Ms Kassam noted that Australian politicians on WeChat know their accounts are subject to Chinese law and regulation.
"And with that the powerful Chinese state," she said.
Not the PM's first run-in with WeChat
It's worth noting that WeChat blocked a message from Mr Morrison back in 2020, amid the dispute between Canberra and Beijing over the doctored tweeted image of an Australian soldier.
China rebuffed Mr Morrison’s calls for an apology after Mr Zhao posted the picture of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child, reference to alleged war crimes which surfaced in the Brereton Report.
In his message, Morrison defended Australia’s handling of a war crimes investigation into the actions of special forces in Afghanistan, and said Australia would deal with “thorny issues” in a transparent manner.
But that message was blocked with a note appearing from the Weixin Official Accounts Platform Operation Center saying the content was unable to be viewed because it violated regulations, including distorting historical events and confusing the public.
Dr Leonid Petrov from the International College of Management and Visiting Fellow at Australian National University School of Culture, History and Language noted Australia's strained relationship with China over the past few years and said the WeChat account takeover should be a warning to the federal government.
"I think what happened to Scott Morrison's WeChat account is just the bell which should warn any Australian Government, official or agency that may be exposed to either surveillance or hacking or leak of information," he told Yahoo News Australia.
"Cybersecurity is is very important in the 21st century and certain government understand this."
Fergus Ryan, a Senior Analyst with ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre, said politicians setting up accounts under an agency to create an account was "risky and ill-advised", and in breach of WeChat's rules.
“Any account set up in this way can be shut down at a moment’s notice,” he said.
In contrast, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' account appears to be registered in his own name, Mr Ryan tweeted and still intact.
— Fergus Ryan (@fryan) January 24, 2022
Federal MPs to ditch WeChat over 'serious concerns'
Members of the federal government have backed a boycott of WeChat following the hijacking of Mr Morrison's account.
Among those in Liberal MP Gladys Liu, who said the platform's move raised "serious concerns of political interference".
"In an election year especially, this sort of interference in our political processes is unacceptable, and this matter should be taken extremely seriously by all Australian politicians," she said in a statement on Monday.
Interesting. Coalition MP @GladysLiuMP - whose seat of Chisholm includes a high proportion of Chinese Australians - says she will no longer use WeChat in her campaign. The Chinese messaging app has blocked access to the PM's account, drawing accusations of foreign interference pic.twitter.com/5bgUIFxGTo
— Stephen Dziedzic (@stephendziedzic) January 24, 2022
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