Picture: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG
Picture: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

Sydney — 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 is under way 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 tweeted a fake image purporting to show an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Thursday said WeChat’s action was “unnecessary”.

While stressing the importance of the trading relationship with China, he said Australia won’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.

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 heads of state 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 2019’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.

Like all media in China, WeChat works with the Beijing government to censor sensitive content. The Chinese microblogging site Weibo, a more popular platform for foreign government leaders and politicians, 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.

WeChat operator Tencent Holdings didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ties between the major trading partners have been strained since 2018 when Canberra barred Huawei Technologies 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”.

©2020 Bloomberg LP

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