Liberal Party faithful in the Chinese community have been caught falsely accusing prominent Labor supporters and Morrison government critics of being under investigation by Australian intelligence agencies for election interference.
- The message reached thousands of Chinese Australian voters in marginal seats across the east coast
- One of the most prolific distributors of the message was the father of a campaign staffer for Liberal MP Michael Sukkar
- Named in the message was a Canberra school principal, who referred the post to ASIO
An ABC investigation has uncovered a scare campaign spreading on the social app WeChat, pushing a message claiming four Chinese Australians and four local Chinese-language news sites received foreign payments to distort facts ahead of the federal election.
Most of the eight have been vocal critics of the Liberal government on WeChat, which boasts more than 1.2 billion active users — many of whom are among the 1.2 million Chinese Australian voters who will cast their ballot on May 21.
The message, written in Chinese, was circulated 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 Australia’s east-coast cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
One of the most prolific distributors of the message has been Melbourne businessman and Liberal Party member Bill Ma, whose son, Tom, is working on the election campaign of assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar.
The message, seen by the ABC, features a shadowy, trench coat-wearing figure beneath text accusing the eight of election misconduct.
“The Australian Intelligence Bureau is closely monitoring and investigating Chinese media and individuals who received foreign funds, media and individuals who fabricated and distorted facts,” the message, which first appeared in mid-March, read.
“They distorted and criticised 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 message provides no evidence to support its assertions.
The ABC has spoken to most of the people named in the message.
All have said they were not involved in election interference nor were they the subject of any government probe.
The ABC was unable to find any evidence of any investigation into them.
“This lame effort reflects a larger effort by the Coalition government to use the China relationship 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-Labor voice on WeChat.
The message was a clear attempt to diminish the voices of Labor supporters on WeChat during the election campaign, he said.
“I write a lot in English-language newspapers and my views are clearly pro-Labor [and] that’s made a lot of Chinese-speaking Liberal supporters very angry.
“They assumed that, because I support Labor and I oppose the conservative government, I must be a Chinese spy.”
Mr Yang said the intent behind the message was to damage Labor’s vote among the Chinese-speaking community.
“They only use this Chinese agent angle as a way to attack Labor being soft on China, so that’s their ultimate goal in the end.”
‘Hot and fresh dirty bombs’
The ABC has traced the message back to mid-March in closed WeChat groups associated with Chinese Australian conservative voters.
One of the people spreading the message the most was Melbourne furniture store owner and Liberal Party member Bill Ma.
He is a fierce supporter of his local federal member, Liberal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, who holds his marginal seat of Deakin by 4.7 per cent.
Mr Ma was seen campaigning with Mr Sukkar in a shopping mall in Deakin last weekend and has said on his business’s website that he was authorised to translate Mr Sukkar’s newsletters into Chinese.
His son, Tom Ma, is a long-time Liberal employee and is working within Mr Sukkar’s federal election campaign.
Tom Ma told the ABC his father was a Liberal Party member but held no paid or voluntary position 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 subscribed to by hundreds of Chinese-speaking voters.
There is no evidence Mr Ma created the message and the ABC was shown screenshots that indicated at least two other people posted the message to 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 circulate it himself.
He said he could not remember how many of his groups he had posted the message in.
When the ABC asked him if he believed the information in the message, he said he did not know.
“If this is a fake, I will regret it for sure. I don’t have knowledge inside this,” he said.
After he spoke to the ABC, Mr Ma returned to one of his closed WeChat groups to announce the ABC was “looking into the dirty bombs we throw at each other”.
“I only throw well-made, hot and fresh dirty bombs,” he wrote in Chinese.
“Throwing dirty bombs is fine and encouraged during the election period.”
‘Someone wants to silence me’
The other three people named in the message are the principal of a not-for-profit Chinese school in Canberra, a Brisbane building industry figure and the editor of a Sydney online news website.
All three have been critical of the Morrison government on WeChat.
The Canberra school principal, Cong Changxin, said the message was designed to be a shot across the bow to Labor supporters.
“This is part of a scare campaign targeting Chinese Australians,” said Ms Cong, who is one of the most-prominent Labor supporters on WeChat.
The Canberra school principal has since reported the message to police and ASIO, she said.
Dai Tiancheng, who works in the building industry, was also targeted.
“I think the reason I was targeted was because someone wants to silence me,” Mr Dai said.
He said he voted for the Liberals in 2019 but planned to vote Labor in the upcoming federal election because he believed the federal government’s policies were against the interests of Chinese-speaking voters.
“A worsening China-Australia relationship will have an impact on those of us who live here,” he said.
“I don’t want to have to see increasing discrimination against Chinese people in Australia and I particularly don’t want my children to face it.”
The four Chinese-language news sites named in the message have all published stories 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 doesn’t tell anything,” the spokesperson said.
“We are not politically biased and we have never been interviewed by an Australian intelligence agency. This pre-election rumour mill is actually doing a disservice to Australian politics.”
The other three websites did not respond to ABC requests for comments.
This is not the first time WeChat has been used to circulate disinformation during a federal election campaign.
During the 2019 federal campaign, supporters of successful Liberal Party candidate Gladys Liu were caught spreading misinformation through closed WeChat groups that reached hundreds of Chinese-speaking voters.
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