How far do the tentacles of China’s censorship reach?
14 Dec 2017|

Foreign government efforts to undermine Australian democracy have been making headlines in the past few weeks, but we’re missing things.

In announcing new legislation to ban foreign political donations, Prime Minister Turnbull told us: ‘Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad.’

The 2017 foreign policy white paper signalled a protracted battle with foreign interference, stating: ‘The Government is concerned about growing attempts by foreign governments or their proxies to exert inappropriate influence on and to undermine Australia’s sovereign institutions and decision-making.’

And then, of course, there have been the shady examples of influence-buying.

While the recent focus has been on political donations and ‘how China’s spies operate in Australia’, one area of interference in the cyber domain has been overlooked: how Beijing can exert influence through the penetration of Chinese social media platforms in the Australian market.

A 2017 Deloitte survey suggests about 1 in 7 Australians source their news from social media. For around 1.5 million Chinese-speaking people in Australia, that includes the Chinese social media platform WeChat. That’s a problem because WeChat takes direction from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which means Australians who source their news through WeChat are having their news diet dictated by a foreign authoritarian state.

Research conducted by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has documented the extensive but subtle censorship imposed on WeChat users by the Chinese authorities. That includes blocking messages that contain censored keywords (such as Tiananmen massacre or Radio Free Asia), links to banned websites (including news sites critical of the Chinese government) and images with banned political content (such as images associated with controversial events like human rights crackdowns).

This censorship can be tricky for users to detect. For example, when a user sends a message with a censored keyword, they are not advised that their message was blocked; the message just doesn’t appear on the receiver’s end. The censorship regime is also far stricter in group chats than in private messages, suggesting an effort by the authorities to prevent mass dissemination of messages potentially damaging to the CCP.

Through rigorous testing, the Citizen Lab was able to demonstrate that users who originally sign up with a mainland Chinese mobile number, then later switch to an international number, remain under the same censorship as they would back in China. This has the potential to sweep up Australian holidaymakers, migrants of Chinese descent (more than half a million Australians were born in China), students, academics and business people. While users who establish a new account from Australia can avoid keyword censorship on WeChat, they still have some websites blocked and are subject to any future changes imposed by the CCP as it continues to tighten censorship at home.

This reach into Australian society should be of concern to Australia. WeChat has several potential pernicious applications. It is being used to limit the material Chinese Australians can read about issues that the CCP deems sensitive. It could also be used as a vehicle for monitoring dissident students in Australia who use the platform.

This is worrying because, as the white paper tells us, by 2030 in purchasing power parity terms, China’s economy will be nearly twice that of the United States, and China is already challenging the US for dominance in our region. As Hugh White outlines in his new Quarterly Essay, China is likely to use that power to push us into some uncomfortable territory. Its ability to shape Australian debate by exerting control over a major media channel like WeChat is one important way it could influence outcomes in Australia.

This has the potential to erode one of our key national strengths. As White also observes, in confronting the challenge of China’s rise ‘we have some real and growing assets, including over 1 million Australians of Chinese descent. It is too easy to overlook the vital and obvious contribution they will make to helping us find our way in a Chinese-dominated East Asia.’

There’s nothing wrong with Australians choosing to use WeChat, and all Australians are fortunate enough to have a diverse range of news sources they can access. But we deserve to know what is and isn’t being censored from our news diet, especially when it comes to dominant market platforms. Australia can’t stop the CCP from censoring WeChat, but it could require that all social media companies publish their censorship rules as a condition of operating in Australia (as companies like Facebook already do). That would at least allow us all to see what we’re missing out on and make it easier to pressure for change.