The popular WeChat messaging app is a key driver of the Chinese Communist Party's influence in Australia and may be responsible for the "most substantial and harmful changes ever observed" in Chinese-language Australian media, a report warns.

The report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank surveyed Chinese-language outlets in the country, finding that they had faced "persistent efforts" by the CCP to influence or censor content.

"CCP influence over Chinese-language media in Australia is widespread and complex," the report said. "Few outlets are directly controlled by the CCP, but none are insulated from the party's ability to manipulate incentives, leverage WeChat and use coercive pressure."

WeChat, owned by Chinese technology company Tencent, is used by up to three million people in Australia and has a reported 690,000 daily active users. For many it is their key link to family and friends in China, and it is also the most popular source of online news for Chinese-Australians.

But the app "raises concerns because of its record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing's objectives", according to the report.

"The PRC's ability to censor and monitor WeChat is perhaps the single most effective and concerning factor in the CCP's influence over Chinese-language media in Australia," it says.

Today, the Chinese-language media sector in Australia is "dominated by media outlets that are friendly towards the CCP, are active on WeChat, are run by migrants from mainland China and produce content in simplified Chinese characters".

"Such outlets started to emerge in the early 1990s and have mushroomed since early 2000s," the report said.

"This has been driven in part by incentives from and coercion by the CCP, which offers support to some outlets and may have covertly set up media companies in Australia while threatening the advertising revenue of outlets critical of the Chinese party-state."


WeChat has accelerated this growth of CCP-aligned media. Its "unclear censorship process" discourages political content, "contributing to a lack of political awareness among Chinese communities and leaving them vulnerable to manipulation".

The vast majority of local media outlets targeting Australian audiences are pushed to register their accounts in China rather than through the app's international version. This limits their posts to just four per month, making them "subject to greater controls and censorship".

The report notes that the increase in Chinese student numbers "appears to have expanded the market for WeChat-based outlets that focus on viral, sensational and occasionally nationalistic content".

Censorship of content critical of the CCP is "widespread" in Australia's Chinese-language media and has been worsened by the heavy reliance on WeChat, with even New Corp's The Australian affected, according to the report.

Earlier this month WeChat censored a post by Prime Minister Scott Morrison reaching out directly to the Chinese people in the wake of the controversy over the doctored photo of an Australian soldier posted by a Chinese diplomat.

"The post of a false image of an Australian soldier does not diminish our respect for and appreciation of our Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China," Mr Morrison wrote.

WeChat censored the post, which was replaced with a message stating the content "involves the use of inciting, misleading, or contrary to objective facts, text, pictures, videos, etc., fabricate social hot spots, distort historical events, and confuse the public".

WeChat's role in Australian elections, particularly in marginal seats with large Chinese-speaking populations such as Chisholm and Reid, has also been identified as a growing concern due to the lack of adequate oversight or regulation, including measures to combat disinformation.

ABC AND SBS INFLUENCED

Four of the 24 outlets studied showed "evidence of CCP ownership or financial support", and only two - the Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times and Sydney-based Vision Times Media - were completely free of connections to China and the CCP.

That includes national broadcasters ABC and SBS, which were both identified as having attended a "united front" media forum.

The united front system is described in the report as a "central but overlooked player in the CCP's overseas propaganda work" that "arguably has the greatest role in influencing Australian Chinese-language media".

The report quotes a senior united front official in 2015 who said China must "concentrate its advantages and carve out a bloody path through the West's (media) monopoly and public opinion hegemony".

"When applied to media, united front work focuses on building relationships with publishers, editors and journalists from friendly overseas Chinese-language media outlets," the report says.

"Those ties help the CCP launder its narratives through media that isn't overtly affiliated with it by partnering with overseas outlets, encouraging them to promote CCP policies and messages, and covertly supporting them in some cases. Media targeted by united front work can eventually take a role in other aspects of that work, including political influence and intelligence gathering."


The CCP's Global Chinese Language Media Forum is run every two years by China News Service, the country's second largest news agency and the primary state media outlet targeting overseas Chinese audiences. Since 2001, approximately 93 Australian organisations have attended.

Around 430 people went last year, with Australia the third-largest source of attendees after the US and Canada.

"The relatively high proportion of Australian attendees and the forum's history of nearly two decades point to sustained and large-scale efforts by the united front system to build ties with Australian media," the report said.

"Executives from at least 12 of the 24 outlets studied in this report were members of united front groups (including the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China), and 17 have been represented in the united front's global Chinese-language media forum. Past employees of many other outlets, such as SBS Mandarin, have been active in united front groups."

The report calls for the Australian government to hold WeChat to the same standards as US-based platforms like Facebook and Twitter. "If companies refuse to meet those standards, they shouldn't be allowed to operate in Australia," it says.

It also recommends encouraging the growth of independent Chinese-language media and expanding those services through the ABC and SBS, while also "reviewing conflicts of interest and foreign interference risks in each".

It comes after an unprecedented data leak revealed the personal details of nearly two million CCP members, many embedded inside some of the world's biggest companies including defence contractors, banks and pharmaceutical giants.

frank.chung@news.com.au

Originally published as 'Harmful' influence of Chinese app exposed