Liberal Party loyalists in the Chinese community have been caught falsely accusing prominent Labor supporters and critics of the Morrison government of being under investigation by Australian intelligence agencies for election interference.
- The message reached thousands of Chinese-Australian voters occupying marginal seats on the east coast
- One of the most prolific spreaders of the message was the father of Liberal MP Michael Sukkar’s campaign staff.
- Named in the post was a school principal from Canberra, who forwarded the post to ASIO
An ABC investigation uncovered a fearmongering run on social app WeChat pushing a message claiming four Chinese Australians and four local Chinese-language news sites received foreign payments to misrepresent facts ahead of the federal election.
Most of the eight have been vocal critics of the Liberal government on WeChat, which has more than 1.2 billion active users – many of whom are among the 1.2 million Chinese-Australian voters who will vote on May 21.
The message, written in Chinese, was spread by a group of Liberal Party supporters to more than a dozen closed WeChat groups, reaching thousands of Chinese-speaking voters in marginal seats in Australian cities on Sydney’s east coast. , Melbourne and Brisbane.
One of the most prolific spreaders of the message has been Melbourne businessman and Liberal Party member Bill Ma, whose son, Tom, works on Deputy Treasurer Michael Sukkar’s election campaign.
The post, seen by the ABC, features a shadowy figure wearing a trench coat beneath text accusing the eight of election misconduct.
“The Australian Intelligence Bureau is closely monitoring and investigating Chinese media and individuals who have received foreign funding, media outlets and individuals who have fabricated and distorted facts,” reads the message, which first appeared. times in mid-March.
“They misrepresented and criticized the Australian government and political parties in order to interfere with the Australian general election.”
There is no Australian intelligence or security agency called the Australian Intelligence Bureau and the post does not provide any evidence to support its claims.
The ABC has spoken to most of those named in the message.
All said they were not involved in election interference and had not been the subject of any government investigation.
The ABC could find no evidence of an investigation into them.
“This lame effort reflects a greater effort by the coalition government to use relations with China as an election issue,” said one of the people named in the message, Yang Han.
Mr Han is a former Chinese diplomat who moved to Australia 20 years ago and is a well-known pro-Labour voice on WeChat.
The message was a clear attempt to diminish the votes of Labor supporters on WeChat during the election campaign, he said.
“I write a lot in English newspapers and my views are clearly pro-Labour [and] this angered many Chinese-speaking liberal supporters.
“They assumed that because I support Labor and oppose the Conservative government, I must be a Chinese spy.”
Mr Yang said the intention behind the message was to hurt the Labor vote within the Chinese-speaking community.
“They’re only using this China agent angle as a way to attack Labor being soft on China, so that’s their ultimate goal in the end.”
“Hot and Cool Dirty Bombs”
The ABC traced the post to mid-March in closed WeChat groups associated with conservative Australian Chinese voters.
One of the people who spread the message the most was Bill Ma, owner of a Melbourne furniture store and member of the Liberal Party.
He is a strong supporter of his local MP, Liberal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, who holds his marginal Deakin seat by 4.7%.
Mr Ma was seen campaigning with Mr Sukkar at a mall in Deakin last weekend and said on his company’s website that he was authorized to translate Mr Sukkar’s newsletters into Chinese.
His son, Tom Ma, is a longtime Liberal employee and works on Mr. Sukkar’s federal election campaign.
Tom Ma told the ABC that his father was a member of the Liberal Party but did not hold any paid or volunteer positions with the party.
He said Mr. Sukkar’s office had nothing to do with the WeChat message.
Mr. Sukkar’s office did not respond to questions.
On the evening of March 15, Bill Ma posted the message to at least two closed WeChat groups that hundreds of Chinese-speaking voters have subscribed to.
There is no evidence that Mr. Ma created the message and the ABC has received screenshots indicating that at least two other people posted the message on WeChat minutes before Mr. Ma.
However, Mr. Ma was one of the most prolific sharers of the message found by the ABC.
When the ABC contacted Mr Ma this week, he said he saw the message in another WeChat group and decided to broadcast it himself.
He said he couldn’t remember in how many of his groups he posted the message.
When the ABC asked him if he believed the information in the post, he said he didn’t know.
“If it’s a fake, I will regret it for sure. I have no inside knowledge,” he said.
After speaking to the ABC, Mr. Ma returned to one of his closed WeChat groups to announce that the ABC was “watching the dirty bombs we were throwing at each other.”
“I only throw well-made, hot and cool dirty bombs,” he wrote in Chinese.
“Throwing dirty bombs is fine and encouraged during election time.”
“Someone wants to shut me up”
The other three people named in the post are the principal of a non-profit Chinese school in Canberra, a construction industry figure from Brisbane and the publisher of an online news site from Sydney.
All three criticized the Morrison government on WeChat.
Canberra school principal Cong Changxin said the message was designed to be a punch to Labor supporters.
“This is part of a fear campaign targeting Chinese Australians,” said Ms Cong, who is one of the most prominent Labor supporters on WeChat.
The principal of the Canberra school has since reported the message to the police and ASIO, she said.
Dai Tiancheng, who works in construction, was also targeted.
“I think the reason I was targeted was because someone wanted to shut me up,” Mr Dai said.
He said he voted for the Liberals in 2019 but planned to vote for Labor in the next federal election because he felt the federal government’s policies were against the interests of Chinese-speaking voters.
“A deterioration in China-Australia relations will impact those of us who live here,” he said.
“I don’t want to see the growing discrimination against Chinese people in Australia and I certainly don’t want my children to face it.”
The four Chinese language news sites named in the message all published articles critical of the Morrison government.
A spokesperson for one of the news sites, Queensland Today, said the message was false.
“An unconfirmed blog post on a social media platform says nothing,” the spokesperson said.
“We are not politically biased and have never been interviewed by an Australian intelligence agency. This pre-election rumor mill is actually doing Australian politics a disservice.”
The other three websites did not respond to ABC’s requests for comment.
This is not the first time WeChat has been used to spread misinformation during a federal election campaign.
During the 2019 federal campaign, supporters of elected Liberal Party candidate Gladys Liu were caught spreading misinformation through closed WeChat groups that reached hundreds of Chinese-speaking voters.
Read the story in Chinese: 阅读中文版本
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