The Coalition’s muscular position toward China is not going down well with Chinese-speaking voters, while Labor is facing criticism over its more generous approach to humanitarian immigration, an analysis of WeChat audience comments reveals.
The study of more than 3,000 political news stories and associated comments appearing on the Chinese social media platform, WeChat, has been undertaken by researchers at Monash and Deakin Universities over the past 11 months, including during the election campaign.
It provides an insight into the Australian political news reaching Chinese speakers and how they are reacting to it.
It reveals that Scott Morrison dominated WeChat news coverage up until the election campaign, but Anthony Albanese has been catching up.
The study found that Chinese-Australians on WeChat were engaged in complex conversations about issues including the Australia-China relationship, the economy, interest rates and property, immigration and health.
“The key findings of the researchers are that the Liberal party has been criticised for its militaristic position towards China and its alignment with the US. Labor is not liked due to its loose humanitarian immigration scheme, but the party is more preferable compared to the LNP due to its friendlier approach to China,” the study found.
“The Greens have recently gained visible popularity among WeChat users with their friendlier approach towards China and a ‘hands-off’ approach towards Taiwan issues,” they said.
“While we have not seen technical forms of censorship of Australian media reporting as translated in [WeChat Official Accounts] (WOAs) coverage of the election, we do note Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference is commented on by certain WOA editors. Examples include an article linking Chisholm MP Gladys Liu to the CCP and an article about a fake political campaign that tries to connect the Labor Party to the CCP,” the researchers said.
WeChat has been described as a Swiss army knife application, combining the functionality of Facebook, Twitter, direct messaging and online payments.
Because it is a way of keeping in touch with family in China, it is wildly popular in the Chinese-Australian community, both as a means of communicating and for getting news.
Some 86% of Chinese-Australians use WeChat “often” or “sometimes” for their Chinese-language news, according to the Lowy Institute’s 2022 Being Chinese In Australia survey. And 63% of Chinese-Australians use WeChat “often” or “sometimes” to access English-language news.
But WeChat is also subject to opaque censorship rules agreed with the Chinese government and the Lowy survey found a high degree of scepticism among Chinese Australians about the type of news they were receiving on WeChat.
Most Chinese-language news publications use WeChat official accounts as well as their own websites to push out their news to audiences, particularly those on mobile devices.
Robbie Fordyce, lecturer in communications and media studies at Monash University, said the study showed that Morrison had dominated the coverage but that in recent months Albanese was catching up, though was still behind Morrison.
Most of the articles were compilations drawn from the Australian media and translated into Chinese, he said.
They did not find evidence of articles about Australian politics emanating from sources linked to the Chinese government.
“A common feature of WOAs is organic polling of WOA audiences, which is used by WOAs to measure audience sentiment and tailor future coverage accordingly,” the researchers said.
“Polling continues to show an increasing anti-Morrison sentiment due to the Morrison government’s approach to China since 2020 whilst Albanese remains mostly an ‘unknown’ due to a lack of exposure in major media (this trend might be reversing),” the researchers said.
Fan Yang, a researcher and PhD student at Deakin University, said that for the most part politicians were not using WeChat to have a conversation with the Australian Chinese community but for attack ads and to push out campaign materials.
‘‘This is not engagement but a form of political communication. They are being given a frownie Albanese, not a conversation,” said Luke Heemsbergen, a lecturer in communication at Deakin.
Politicians such as Gladys Liu, the MP for Chisholm who used WeChat in 2019, have retreated from the platform after Morrison lost control of his official account. Official accounts must be owned by Chinese entities, and Morrison and others had used agents based in China to obtain WOAs.
After Morrison’s experience, there appears to have been a change of heart about using such arrangements, the researchers said.
However some candidates have personal WeChat accounts which they use. These include Labor’s Carina Garland who is running in Chisholm against Liu, and Labor’s Clare O’Neil, who has received online criticism for her use of Google Translate to produce Chinese-language posts.
But the Coalition has not abandoned WeChat altogether.
WeChat has been peppered with political ads from both Liberal and Labor or their proxies.
“We note both positive ads for parties (i.e. banner ads on WOAs) have been filled by LNP and ALP members in key seats, as well as individual accounts that run advocacy campaigns.”
The researchers found that unlike 2019 when Chisholm was the focus on WeChat, this time it is Kooyong.
A number of soft editorial articles have been appearing, particularly for treasurer Josh Frydenberg, which were often surrounded by banner ads.
Yang said the extent of the investment by the Liberals was unclear but her research in 2019 with editors of Chinese language sites had revealed that banner ads on WeChat could cost about $8,000.