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As election day approaches, both Labor and the Coalition have taken to the social media platform WeChat to appeal to Chinese-Australian voters – even if it might lead to scrutiny by the Chinese government. By Wanning Sun.

Political engagement on WeChat

On March 27 this year, two weeks before the federal election was called, Mandarin-speaking voters in Australia were invited to take part in a novel political experiment – to interact, live, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat. The event was widely advertised on WeChat the day prior, and 500 people quickly signed up. This is the maximum number allowed in each WeChat group, a limit imposed by Chinese authorities, most likely to minimise the spread of counter-government information.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation on WeChat in the hours leading up to Shorten’s event. For the participants, who used WeChat on a daily basis, the chance to see one of Australia’s top politicians in action – not to mention the possible future prime minister – was too good to miss.

At 2.30pm sharp, Shorten announced his presence online with a 10-second video, saying he was looking forward to hearing “your views and comments” and “for you to learn a bit more about why you should vote for Labor in six weeks’ time”. He also introduced Jennifer Yang, Labor’s candidate in the Victorian seat of Chisholm, and went on to respond to some of the participants’ questions by recording voice messages. WeChat allows such messages to be no longer than 60 seconds.

Following the posting of each voice message, Shorten’s WeChat assistant promptly converted the messages into text and posted them in English before Shorten tackled the next question. Participants were told they could also use the translation function within WeChat, should they need to read his replies in Chinese. To conclude the session, the opposition leader recorded another short video thanking participants for taking part.

While Shorten and the Labor Party had a WeChat subscription account for quite some time before this event, it marked the opposition leader’s first foray into live interaction on the platform.

There was similar enthusiasm when Scott Morrison announced his own WeChat session for 9.30am on April 3 to talk about the budget. Participants signed up quickly, expecting a similar experience. But this was not to be. Morrison made no opening video and posted no voice messages. All that materialised was an announcement from his WeChat assistant, shortly after 10am, saying the prime minister had conducted an interview with a Chinese-language media outlet, and that the contents of the interview would be published in due course.

Commenters in the group were disappointed. One participant lamented that the event involved “zero interaction” with WeChat users, which was a “missed opportunity” and a “great shame”.

The participants in these live WeChat sessions are some of the Mandarin-speaking community’s more politically engaged individuals. From both Labor and Coalition camps, new opinion leaders are emerging to play an active role in debating and interpreting the policy statements of politicians and their parties. These opinion leaders, often well read in both Chinese and English, post news stories, op-eds and tweets from English-language media outlets, sometimes with a précis of the content in Chinese. This is how the political chatter from the mainstream public usually makes its way into WeChat. The coverage includes, most recently, the dumping of Jeremy Hearn, the Liberal candidate in the seat of Isaacs, for his comments about Muslims; One Nation’s Steve Dickson quitting the party after the strip club scandal; and Andrew Hastie’s alleged meeting with the far-right extremist Neil Erikson.

Discussions sometimes get heated, even ugly. The WeChat groups that were established for live sessions with politicians continue as platforms for debate. Opinions in these forums often percolate into WeChat spaces inhabited by everyday users who are less politically involved.

So far in this election campaign, Labor seems to have a more carefully planned WeChat strategy than the Coalition.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen held an hour-long live session on WeChat on the same day as Morrison’s lacklustre performance, using a format similar to Shorten’s. Bowen was no newcomer to WeChat. Two years ago, he became the first mainstream Australian politician to hold a live event on the platform.

Labor hopes to achieve a number of things in these live sessions. First, the party wants to increase its candidates’ visibility in key marginal seats with a high population of Mandarin-speaking voters. While Shorten brought along Jennifer Yang, shadow minister for citizenship and multicultural Australia Tony Burke introduced Dr Brian Owler, Labor’s candidate for Bennelong, in his WeChat session. Shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong took to a live WeChat on April 24 with Chris Gambian, who is standing for Labor in the seat of Banks. This week, videos of Kevin Rudd speaking – in Mandarin – to an enthusiastic group of Hurstville voters have been doing the rounds on WeChat. In these videos, he is accompanied by Gambian and Linda Burney, the member for Barton, and encourages voters to support them.

Labor also wants to use the platform to attack the Coalition on its policies. WeChat conversations with Chinese voters have the potential to unearth ammunition for Labor to use against the Coalition on the policy front.

During Shorten’s live session, some participants questioned the Coalition’s policy on parental visas – a crucial issue for Chinese and other migrant communities, but of little interest to mainstream media. Picking up on this concern, Shorten later released a video on WeChat attacking the Coalition’s policy on family reunion visas, calling it a “joke” and “unfair”. On April 22, Labor announced it would be cutting the fee for temporary sponsored parent visas and removing the visa cap, which is currently fixed at 15,000.

Finally, Labor wants its WeChat live sessions to correct what it sees as “fake news” that Liberal supporters have been putting on the platform. For instance, an image of a scary-looking Shorten was widely circulated on WeChat, claiming Labor, the Greens and the unions would impose a 40 per cent tax on inheritances. Penny Wong used her live session to mount an attack on the rumours about a “death tax”, saying, “This is totally untrue, there is no death tax and it’s incredibly disrespectful that [the] Liberal Party is spreading this false news on platforms like WeChat.”

It is still too early to tell whether a strong WeChat presence will translate into votes for Labor. Dr Chaoguang Chen, the president of the newly established Chinese Australian Multicultural Association, says these short live sessions are “largely symbolic” but “still important in influencing voters”. He notes, “They demonstrate the willingness of party candidates to reach out and engage with the Chinese communities.”

As the campaign gains momentum, the use of WeChat by individual politicians and the major parties has become a staple topic in the media’s election coverage. In the past few weeks, there have been prominent stories about the risks of political interference and the Chinese government’s censorship of WeChat, especially since it was revealed several key politicians’ accounts – including those of Shorten and Morrison – were registered with the IDs of Chinese entities, giving those accounts greater reach on WeChat but also opening them up to closer scrutiny by Chinese authorities. Some analysts from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said that the adoption of WeChat in Australia posed a threat to our national security.

Scholarly research indeed suggests that censorship by the Chinese government is relatively frequent within the three key WeChat spaces – the chat function, WeChat Moments and official WeChat public subscription accounts. WeChat’s gatekeeping strategies include keyword identification, maintaining watch lists of individuals and organisations, algorithmic recognition of politically sensitive images, and close scrutiny of high-risk locations.

Most of the media stories about WeChat and the forthcoming election convey a sense of risk, but few acknowledge that, while journalists are concerned about censorship, politicians are far more pragmatic. They seem willing to take a calculated risk and embrace WeChat, possibly because the prospect of being outmanoeuvred by their opponents is far more frightening than Chinese censors. Labor has at least two painful reminders of the platform’s power: the Liberal Party’s 2016 victory in Chisholm, thanks in part to Gladys Liu’s successful WeChat campaign; and the state Liberal candidate Scott Yung’s claim that he used WeChat to cruel Michael Daley’s chances in the New South Wales election, with a 5.1 per cent swing to the Liberals in Yung’s seat of Kogarah.

But any Australian politician looking to leverage WeChat will need to carefully navigate the complex politics that exist within these groups. Individuals can only be brought into a group by an existing member, and if members do not adhere to group rules, they can be ousted by the group leader – usually the person who starts the group.

Recently, WeChat users have been warned that group leaders must take responsibility for any politically controversial or socially destabilising content posted in their groups.

Acutely aware of WeChat’s capacity to block content based on certain keywords and images, the leaders of these groups constantly remind members not to discuss Chinese politics. Even though WeChat users who sign up using a non-Chinese ID are subject to less scrutiny and face less severe consequences, most WeChat groups see it as their responsibility to rein in any discussions that stray into Chinese politics, with such posts as, “No Chinese politics, please. We are in Australia, and we are only concerned here with Australian politics.”

For these participants, WeChat comes with terms and conditions set by the Chinese authorities, but it also allows them to engage in Australian politics. And while they are keen to avoid censorship by WeChat, they are just as interested in exercising their rights as Australian citizens.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Chat-up lines". Subscribe here.

Wanning Sun
is professor of media studies at University of Technology Sydney.