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Why Australia banned China’s most popular chat app

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WeChat is an all-in-one social media platform that combines services such as those offered by WhatsApp, Facebook, Uber and Apple Pay.

It also acts as a news service via numerous WeChat Official Accounts (also called Public Accounts). These accounts allow government agencies, business corporations, and social organisations to post and distribute news stories to subscribers. WeChat users registered outside China are estimated at 100-150 million.

Interestingly, social media have led to a proliferation of unofficial spaces of communication online, which has created challenges for the Chinese government’s efforts to regulate the content of online communications.

Further, social media companies in China are required to censor posts which the Chinese government identifies as “illegal”, and self-censorship among users is encouraged. Examples of illegal content includes phrases such as “Tiananmen June 4”, “free Tibet” and “Falun Gong”. The flow on effect of regulation and influence on these platforms when they are used outside China’s borders is more complex.

Certainly the Chinese government does seek to influence the diaspora.

There is a dedicated Chinese government department, the United Front Work Department (UFWD), for “overseas Chinese work”. It seeks to both “guide” ethnic Chinese, and conduct influence operations targeted at foreign actors and states that further the objectives of the Chinese government.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has described the UFWD’s work as the Chinese government’s “magic weapons”.

The Australian Defence Department is concerned enough about the possibility of Chinese censorship and surveillance being enabled via WeChat that it has banned the app from work phones, pending security investigation.

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