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WeChat Deletes Australian PM’s Appeal to Chinese Community

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 12/3/2020 Edward Johnson
Josh Frydenberg wearing a suit and tie: Josh Frydenberg on Dec. 2. © Bloomberg Josh Frydenberg on Dec. 2.

(Bloomberg) --

Chinese social media platform WeChat has deleted a post by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, accusing him of misleading the public, as the diplomatic spat between the two nations shows no sign of easing.

In a direct appeal to the Chinese community, Morrison promoted Australia as a “free, democratic, liberal country” and explained that an official probe was underway into alleged atrocities by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. That post was removed for the use of “misleading words” to “distort historical events and deceive the public,” according to a message displayed in its place.

Both China and Australia have taken to social media in recent days as tensions between the two nations continue to simmer. Morrison angrily demanded a public apology earlier this week after a diplomat in Beijing shared a fake image purporting to show an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child on Twitter, a social network banned in China.

WeChat and its operator Tencent Holdings Ltd. work with the Beijing government to censor sensitive content, like all China-based media. The microblogging site Weibo Corp. has a history of blocking or removing posts from foreign embassies on topics ranging from human rights to stock market manipulation, according to a 2018 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Tencent didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to comment, telling a regular news briefing in Beijing that the post’s removal was an issue “between WeChat and Prime Minister Morrison.”

Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said WeChat’s action was “unnecessary.” While stressing the importance of the trading relationship with China, he said Australia wouldn’t give ground on a list of Chinese grievances against the government. They range from Australia meddling in domestic affairs in Hong Kong to calling for a probe into the coronavirus outbreak.

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Australia is “not going to give way on those,” Frydenberg said. “They go to the heart of who we are. Our national identity, a free press, a democratically elected parliament and obviously upholding our national interest when it comes to things like foreign investment.”

Morrison created his WeChat public account in February 2019, becoming one of the few world leaders who have a presence on China’s largest social network with 1 billion users. He has since posted regularly in Chinese to communicate his government’s policies. During last year’s federal election in Australia, leaders of the main political parties took to the platform to conduct question-and-answer sessions with Chinese-Australian voters.

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Ties between the major trading partners have been strained since 2018 when Canberra barred Huawei Technologies Co. from building its 5G network and introduced anti-foreign interference laws aimed at halting Beijing’s “meddling” in domestic affairs. Relations have been in a deep freeze since April, when Morrison’s government called for independent investigators to enter Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus.

A string of commodities have since been targeted with tariffs or bans in what Canberra says amounts to “economic coercion.”

(Updates with Chinese response in fifth paragraph.)

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©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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