Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “lost” WeChat account may not have gone as far as to jeopardise national security but it raises questions about his relationship with the Chinese nationals and companies who owned and managed his account, analysts and experts say. Last week, senior members of his cabinet and the local media alleged Morrison’s WeChat account had been blocked and hijacked while accusing the Chinese Communist Party of foreign interference. There were also calls to boycott WeChat. Since then, more information has surfaced about the leader’s WeChat account, set up to try to better engage with Chinese-Australian voters ahead of the 2019 federal election. The latest information mainly points at Morrison’s and his government’s apparent lack of knowledge about the app and its rules and their administrative failure at maintaining the account, with a particular focus on their relationship with the account owner, a mysterious Mr Ji based in China’s Fujian province. The operator of the platform, Chinese media giant Tencent , has said that the ownership of Morrison’s previously named “ScottMorrison2019” account had been transferred from one Chinese citizen to another and was recently renamed “Australian Chinese new life”. “There is no evidence of any third-party intrusion,” the firm said. “Based on our information, this appears to be a dispute over account ownership.” Morrison’s account was transferred from the aforementioned Mr Ji to Chinese company Fuzhou 985 Information Technology owned by someone with the surname Huang. If Morrison did not even control his own WeChat account it was unlikely he was hacked. And the big question Australians should ask is – why would their prime minister entrust his account to a Chinese stranger? According to research released by the Australia-China Relations Institute last week, Morrison had signed up to a “Weixin” official account – the mainland version of WeChat – rather than an international WeChat account that non-Chinese citizens are allowed to freely use. Weixin is only for users with mainland Chinese mobile phone numbers and national IDs and is governed by Chinese law. While both users of Weixin and WeChat can communicate with each other, their operations are different and were a result of a “conscious decision” by Tencent so users can comply with local laws, said research authors Wanning Sun from the University of Technology Sydney and Haiqing Yu from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “There are often stories about ‘censorship in WeChat’ or ‘state intervention in WeChat’ or ‘controversies’ (real or manufactured) involving WeChat, when what they are actually talking about is the PRC-based Weixin service,” they said. Morrison chose to use a Weixin official account rather than the international WeChat account because he wanted to reach out to Mandarin-speaking voters in Australia. Chinese migrants who arrived in Australia before 2011 mostly use the international WeChat, while most of those who arrived within the last 10 years used Weixin, said the authors. Their research showed that in 2018 and 2019 WeChat/Weixin was the most used social media platform among Chinese migrants in Australia, explaining why major Australian Liberal and Labor political parties used the platforms extensively during the 2019 election, they added. Australia to host Quad foreign ministers’ meet amid China tensions “The platform continues to be used by parliamentarians despite hawkish voices in both major parties arguing to ban the platform based on concerns about cybersecurity and national security,” they said. To access all users of WeChat/Weixin, many companies and influencers sign up to mainland Weixin accounts via an intermediary consultancy for a fee. For example, America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) has an official WeChat account, registered and verified by a Beijing-based NBA sports culture company, while billionaire Bill Gates had his official account registered by a Beijing-based consulting firm. Both Sun and Yu expressed concern over the Morrison government’s attacking of “WeChat” and the way they also criticised the opposition Labor Party for their use of the platform. But the academics conceded these were all election campaign “China threat” tactics employed by the conservative government. Australia seeks to join WTO talks on China-EU trade dispute A federal election is likely to take place in May. “We are baffled about the coalition’s portrayal of the Prime Minister as a victim of Beijing’s censorship, and their chest-beatings as freedom warriors, when our Prime Minister’s Weixin account drama looks more like an administrative error,” said Sun and Yu. “If indeed it is not, the risk in registering an account under a third party’s name could have been easily foreseen. The Prime Minister or his office could simply have opened and run his own WeChat account to communicate and engage with Chinese-Australians, if he took them seriously.” Not just Scott Morrison: 6 overseas celebrity WeChat accounts Yu said it was a paradox that the Morrison government labelled WeChat a national security risk but harnessed the influential social media app to gather votes, particularly during the 2019 election. “For them, when used to woo Chinese speaking voters, WeChat was not a security risk. We know he is famous for backflipping and this is just another backflip,” she said. Did Morrison undermine national security? While it might appear alarming that a nation’s leader would entrust his social media account ownership to a foreign national, the act did not undermine Australia’s national security, said Allan Behm, head of the International and Security Affairs Programme at think-tank The Australia Institute. “The Scott Morrison WeChat/Weixin saga is simply a fiasco,” he said. “I do not think that it in anyway endangered [Australia’s] national security – except to the extent that it made the Prime Minister look incompetent – since it was an arm’s length platform for communicating anodyne political messages to the Australian Chinese community, and not very effectively at that.” He said “the more profound issue here” was that the prime minister “who prides himself on his marketing skills, has a team of publicity and marketing advisers who don’t understand how the platform works, or whether they comply with Wechat’s rules or Chinese law”. Tough, but no wolf: can China’s new envoy to Australia make a difference? Deakin University academic and another WeChat researcher Fan Yang also said it was likely Australian politicians did not know how their “Weixin official accounts” worked. The handling of the account was likely outsourced to Western marketing agencies and then onto Chinese marketing/media agencies, she said. WeChat has been accessing user photos in the background, but plans to stop There were few options for foreigners to tap into Weixin, aside from “hiring” or “borrowing” a “Chinese national” identity to register an account. Other alternatives were operating a business license on mainland China, thereby allowing Weixin to say they were a certified company, or settling for an international WeChat account with a smaller reach. But still, who’s Mr Ji? And why and how did cabinet lose control of relationship? The crucial issue was the identity of Morrison’s original Chinese account owner, Yu said. “The identity [of Mr Ji] is paramount. How was Ji involved, was he trained, we don’t know and nobody wants us to know,” she said. “Australia has a robust security apparatus, did they do any background checks on Ji? Who found Ji, what is his relationship with Australia? What is the deal they had with him? Did he agree to operate the account purely for commercial purposes? It shows the basic lack of cultural intelligence among the people who made such a decision.” “Normally you don’t ask a stranger [to set up an account). It’s common sense.” US agencies submit app security recommendations after dropped TikTok ban Yu also found it odd the relationship with Mr Ji had faltered and that Morrison had failed to resurrect that relationship, although there was speculation Ji might have come under pressure to distance himself from Morrison and his government which were, after all, at loggerheads with Beijing. The two governments have been locked in bilateral tension since Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in 2020, without consulting Beijing. If a blunder had occurred, the Australian government did not need to turn it into another “China attack”, Yu said. The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.