The WeChat account of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reportedly been hijacked and then rebranded.
WeChat is of course one of the most widely used social messaging apps in China. It is owned by Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings. WeChat has approximately 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2020, the vast majority of whom are in China, but it is also used abroad.
The reason Aussie PM Morrison had a WeChat account with 76,000 followers, was to help him communicate with the 1.2 million Chinese Australian citizens in the country.
But amid fraught tensions between Beijing and Canberra, it emerged this week that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had lost control of his account.
Last week, Australia and the UK signed agreements over cyber, technology, and defense matters.
The WeChat issue came to light after it flagged by an Australian lawmaker on Monday, who accused China’s leaders of political interference.
James Paterson, chairman of Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, said in interviews with Australian media that Morrison’s account on the platform had been “taken over and rebranded.”
“His account’s been hacked,” Paterson told the radio network 4BC on Monday, adding that Morrison’s account on the platform now redirects to one called “Australian Chinese New Life.”
Paterson 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 reportedly said.
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.
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 reportedly said.
It identified the present owner of the account as a “technology services company” based in China’s Fujian province.
The company said it would “continue to look into this matter further.”
In October Tencent fixed a ‘loophole’ in its systems that temporarily made its WeChat content available on outside services, and that the issue has been fixed.
The issue led some to speculate that WeChat may have intentionally begun making its content more accessible in response to pressure by regulators in China.
The issue meant that Microsoft’s Bing and Google – which is not available in mainland China – displayed some WeChat content, although the content was not available on Chinese search leader Baidu.
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