Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lost control of his account on Chinese social media platform WeChat. A private company now appears to have assumed the running of the account and has renamed it ‘Australia New Life’. The incident highlights the unusual terms and conditions of WeChat, where ‘official’ accounts must be registered by a Chinese individual or business before they can be used by a Western entity. Companies looking to use WeChat as a channel to reach the Chinese market must take note of the potential risks involved.
On Monday, Australian Senator James Paterson released a statement claiming that Morrison has been blocked from WeChat after making controversial comments on the platform concerning the Chinese Government.
It now appears that the account has not actually been blocked, but has been bought by a Chinese company called Fuzhou 985 Information Technology, an IT company based in Fujian province, and renamed “Australia New Life”. It is now being used to publicise relevant information for Chinese nationals living in Australia.
Morrison’s account has 75,000 followers and features all of his historic posts. Huang Aipeng, the legal spokesperson for Fuzhou 985 Information Technology, said in a statement to the Chinese news outlet SBS that the account “was transferred from the person in charge of the original official account” in what he said is “purely legal behaviour”. He went on to clarify that “the account is legal, the content is legal and the price is reasonable. I don’t pay attention to the rest”.
Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, later released a statement saying: “The account in question was originally registered by a Chinese individual and was subsequently transferred to its current operator.”
What is an ‘official’ WeChat account?
Several types of WeChat account are available for different purposes. An ‘official’ WeChat account offers the best package for reaching, or advertising to, citizens of mainland China. In order for a Western company or individual to create such an account, it must be registered by a Chinese national or a Chinese company in China before being transferred across.
“Other than getting advanced APIs, the verified official account is the prerequisite if you want to host an advertisement via your official account or market it via WeChat ads,” says a report by the Gentleman’s Marketing Agency, an agency based in China that helps Western businesses set up these accounts.
To get this account the platform requires what is called “WeChat verification,” which means it must be registered by a company or person with a Chinese business license, something which is only available to Chinese citizens and companies. Western companies can ‘borrow’ one of these from an existing company for a fee, usually around $500 a year.
Problems can arise because the account remains linked to the original business or person that registered it. In the case of Scott Morrison, his account appears to have been sold by his initial sponsor, explains Gregory Louvel, partner of Leaf Law Firm in Beijing. “There are two different types of problem,” he says. “One is you can get blocked, the other is you get kicked out and someone else is using your account.”
Scott Morrison WeChat woe: What does it mean for business?
Several international companies run this type of account to advertise to citizens of Mainland China, including Harrods, Burberry and British Airways. Companies who have these accounts do not have complete control of their brand, Louvel says. “If you’re not in control of it because you don’t own it, that’s a potential liability,” he says. “You might be in a situation where someone is abusing your brand or your corporate image. It doesn’t look good.”
Understanding the Chinese business culture is key to using WeChat effectively and managing risk, explains Louvel. “There are a lot of pitfalls doing business in China,” he says. “Obviously, the culture is different and the legal system is very different. You need to make a clear assessment of potential risk before you engage in this kind of a move.”
Secondly, he says, it is important to register an account with an agency that deals with Western entities professionally, rather than an individual. This is something that it appears Morrison did not do. “Think about it a little bit before doing things like finding a Chinese individual that you don’t know to open a WeChat account for you,” Louvel adds. “It’s much more manageable if you go through a professional. They will own several accounts and have a reputation in the marketplace for handling foreign WeChat accounts for international corporations in China.”