Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 31 July 2020

WeChat, and the party watches you

Whether you’re one of the billion-plus people living in China or one of the tens of millions to have left the mainland for foreign shores since the turn of the century, there is one universally accepted reality: you’re being watched.
President Xi Jinping’s oft-stated desire to achieve the “Chinese Dream” — the so-called “great rejuvenation” of his nation — might be the mantra of the Chinese Communist Party at home, but it also demands that the country’s mighty diaspora, spread right across the globe, is kept in check.
And in Australia, as in so many other countries with significant numbers of Chinese migrants, Mr Xi’s most powerful weapon is WeChat. The social media channel has been described as a complete digital “ecosystem”.
It’s the main conduit for personal, business and institutional communications in China and, increasingly, its worldwide diaspora, including the 1.2 million-strong cohort in Australia.
WeChat has been a fixture in daily life in China for years, but with tensions escalating between China and its rivals — namely the US and its allies — the relentless gaze of the social media behemoth is making life uncomfortable for Chinese Australians.
One dilemma is that WeChat is often the only avenue for Chinese Australians to engage with relatives back home.
Chinese interpreter Christine Hond, who came to Australia in 1989 as a student and stayed on after the Tiananmen Square massacre, said WeChat, TikTok and Zoom had all been compromised by the CCP.
“I don’t go on to WeChat because I don’t want to compromise my personal life, but for a majority of people, they can’t live without WeChat,” Ms Hond said.
“What is on WeChat is monitored by the Chinese government, so what they are reading is propaganda and they are brainwashed.”
Ms Hond, who has an Australian husband, said it took time to fully appreciate “the deeper value of freedom” after coming from China. “Chinese migrants have access to free information in Australia but it takes 10 years to undo the brainwashing, and that is if you learn English and integrate with the mainstream,” she said.
Concern about Chinese government interference in Australia continues to rise in step with the worsening war of words between the two countries.
Just this week, Beijing powerbrokers accused Australia of “barking at China” at the behest of the US. Earlier last month, Australia had enraged Beijing over its stance on Hong Kong. All this when Mr Xi has made no secret of his desire to toughen CCP control over the overseas diaspora.
An edict sent out earlier this year to all CCP members around the world tightened the regulation of members’ behaviour outside of working hours.
Members are banned from contradicting the party, watching non-approved websites and television, carrying and collecting banned publications, and joining forbidden associations. They also are banned from publishing, forwarding or liking articles and images, videos and audio that damage the party’s unification.
Within WeChat’s multiple networks, users dob in neighbours to police and censors. Unruly or unpatriotic behaviour in Australia can be used to punish Chinese relatives at home.
WeChat combines all the separate functionalities of companies such as WhatsApp, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple Pay, Uber, Twitter, PayPal, Skype, Wordpress, Instagram, MyGov and even Tinder in a single app.
Highly sophisticated monitoring functions make it a cornerstone of the Chinese govern­ment’s social-credit system that, according to China’s State Council, will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
Together with the broadcast of state-sanctioned TV programs into thousands of Chinese-Australian homes, WeChat provides a unfiltered stream of CCP propaganda to the global diaspora.
Some foreign powers, including India, have taken steps to curb the global march of WeChat and other apps such as TikTok, arguing that the spread of Chinese propaganda should stay within its own borders. US President Donald Trump is considering taking similar action, but there has been little discussion in Australia of applying any restrictions on Chinese social media channels.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Fergus Ryan said the government should do more to protect the privacy of WeChat users in Australia.
“Australian WeChat users, like all WeChat users, are constantly monitored,” he said. “This data is then used by WeChat to train its political censorship system.”
Mr Ryan said the Australian government should push WeChat owner Tencent to service Australian users without exposing them to unreasonable levels of surveillance and censorship. “ Failing that, the Australian government should be prepared to ban it,” he says.
Tencent did not respond to questions from The Weekend Australian about surveillance of its Australian users accounts.
Maree Ma, general manager of Sydney-based Chinese-language publisher Vision Times Media,said more people were influenced by WeChat than by television and other platforms.
“I think We Chat is a place where propaganda can really infiltrate because it is used all the time and people don’t really have a choice to not use it,” Ms Ma said.
“People don’t bother going to other places and they think what they read is the truth.”
Ms Ma told an ASPI online conference last month that what was less known was how We Chat could mobilise the Chinese community to support particular politicians. “Mostly groups are dormant, but when sensitive issues come up information can be spread incredibly quickly by these groups,” Ms Ma said. “This can happen during elections or be used to target people.”
Ms Ma said when Victorian Liberal MP Gladys Liu made supportive comments about Hong Kong there was a spike in negative comments made about her in WeChat groups.
“This acted as a warning to her that United Front efforts could help her win the election but could also take it away from her if she went out of line,” she said.
As part of a series of articles on the region’s Chinese diaspora, The Weekend Australian, supported by the Judith Neilson Institute, has found a community that retains strong links with China’s heritage but has a mixed and sometimes difficult relationship with the CCP.
Australia’s Chinese community is a diverse mix that includes families that have been in Australia for generations, dissidents enjoying sanctuary from perse­cution and a new wave from the mainland who have benefited most from China’s new era of economic prosperity.
Many support the CCP’s ambitions to stand up to the US in the region and defend China’s policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea. Others regard the CCP under Mr Xi as being out of control.
Dozens of Chinese Australians have told The Weekend Australian they live in fear of online missteps; for them, being excom­municated from the WeChat world would effectively sever all political, social and family ties they may hold with the homeland.
Michael Jensen, of the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, said one of the largest WeChat groups in Australia, OurSteps, had been shut down last year on CCP orders.
“This is evidence of the extraterritorial application of censorship, but it is not just on WeChat,” he said. “Universities in the UK have been told that online students in China must only be required to read materials on an ‘allowed’ list of resources.”
ASPI said WeChat was known to “facilitate Chinese government censorship and surveillance”.
Indeed, a spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs said social media could be a particularly effective tool in the manipulation of information. “Social media platforms can be used to disseminate and quickly amplify misinformation or promulgate political views in a manner which allows the principal author to remain anonymous,” the spokesman said in response to questions from The Weekend Australian.
The CCP also beams its message into thousands of Chinese homes through YouTube and Charming TV, a set-top box service that gives access to hundreds of channels of regional Chinese TV, propaganda films and news.
Aspiring politician Stanley Xie, who came to Australia in 1988 and has been a Unity Party candidate in NSW, has been supported by the ALP as an independent candidate for the Hurstville ward in local government elections.
Hurstville, in Sydney’s south, has Australia’s largest Chinese community. Mr Xie said most mainland Chinese families in Australia were still watching Chinese TV.
“This means their political view reflects the Chinese propaganda,” Mr Xie says. “If you publish something considered to be political dissent, WeChat will kick me out and I will lose contact with my friends and community.”

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