(Bloomberg) -- The popular Chinese messaging application WeChat appears to have blocked access to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s account, leading one senator to call for a parliament-wide boycott of the service.
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Senator James Paterson, chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, said on Monday the prime minister’s team had been having trouble accessing the WeChat account for months. It was finally taken out of the government’s control in early January despite formal representations from Morrison’s office, he told radio station 4BC.
“My view is given that WeChat is such a closely controlled company by the Chinese Communist Party, that this amounts to foreign interference in our democracy and in an election year no less,” he said.
The prime minister’s office had no immediate comment. Efforts to find Scott Morrison’s WeChat account on Monday morning in China were unsuccessful.
With more than a billion users globally, WeChat is one of the most popular messaging applications in the world. China’s government regularly censors sensitive content, including on WeChat, which is owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd.
A Tencent spokesperson said there was “no evidence of any third-party intrusion” in an emailed statement, saying instead it appeared to be a dispute over account ownership. The account which used to be Morrison’s has now been labeled “Australia China New Life” and is now owned by Fuzhou 985 Information Technology Co. Ltd.
On Monday afternoon, Huang Aipeng, the contact for Fuzhou 985, said the account had been transferred to his company and such behavior was “purely legal business,” according to SBS Chinese, the Mandarin language service of one of Australia’s public broadcasters. Huang said he had purchased it from the person who had run it previously and he “didn’t know anything” about its previous content or owner.
Under WeChat regulations, only Chinese citizens can open public accounts in their own names. In their statement, the Tencent spokesperson said the dispute would be handled “in accordance with our platform rules” and they would continue to look into the matter.
“Tencent is committed to upholding the integrity of our platform and the security of all users’ accounts,” the spokesperson’s statement said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment at a regular news briefing Monday, saying it was an issue between Morrison and Tencent.
Calls for boycott
Many Australian politicians, including opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, have WeChat accounts posting in Mandarin in an attempt to reach out to China’s large diaspora. In the 2016 census, about 5.6% of the population said they had Chinese ancestry -- more than one in 20 citizens.
Paterson called for all Australian politicians to stop using WeChat until the prime minister’s account was restored.
“No one should be legitimizing their censorship and their control over our public debate,” he said.
Gladys Liu, who became Australia’s first Chinese-Australian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives in 2019, said she would no longer use her personal or professional WeChat accounts “until the platform explains itself.”
“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 Monday afternoon.
In comments to 4BC, Albanese said he would talk with Morrison over the WeChat incident, adding that it could have “national security implications.”
Former diplomat Dave Sharma, who is now a lawmaker in Morrison’s coalition, told Sky News the decision to block access to the prime minister’s account was “more likely than not state-sanctioned.”
“It shows the attitude towards free speech and freedom of expression that comes out of Beijing,” he said.
(Updates with WeChat statement, SBS Chinese story and Fuzhou 985)
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