CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Chinese diaspora in Australia, long regarded as a politically apathetic ethnic minority, are being wooed like never before by political parties who see them as key to winning crucial seats that could decide next week's general election.
China has become one of Australia's largest sources of immigrants. Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Bill Shorten have opened WeChat accounts to reach large Chinese populations in big cities with political messages.
The opposition center-left Labor Party has cried foul over some of that engagement, complaining to WeChat's owner Tencent that China's largest social media platform with 1 billion monthly users is being exploited by opponents who generate fake news.
Morrison on Wednesday denied his conservative Liberal Party was behind misleading WeChat posts and doctored accounts that target Labor policies on refugees, taxes and the economy.
"That's not the Liberal Party's campaign," Morrison told reporters. "People should be up front and candid about their policies. That's what we're doing."
An extraordinary feature of the Australian political system is that voting is compulsory. So ethnic minorities turn out to vote to avoid a fine even if they are not politically engaged.
Maree Ma is the general manager of independent Australia-based newspaper Vision China Times, which has 500,000 readers across five Australian cities who are mostly immigrants from China.
Ma said her readers were responding to the political messaging and "are really quite engaged."
"Historically, I would say a lot of our readers don't really care too much about the federal election, people don't know the candidate and there's not that many Chinese candidates. But this time around, what we've found is people are very interested in this particular federal election," Ma said.
Wanning Sun, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said WeChat had become far more important than traditional media to Australian politicians attempting to reach Chinese-Australian voters.
"To put it bluntly, they actually realize that it is a platform they can't afford not to use," Sun said. "The challenge for them is, A, how to use it effectively and, B, how to stop yourself being shafted on WeChat by the opposition. It's getting quite dirty out there."
She said Labor had learned a lesson from how the Liberals "very aggressively and effectively" used WeChat to campaign in the east Melbourne seat of Chisholm in the last election in 2016.
The government lost 14 seats in that election and Chisholm was the only seat that the Liberals won from Labor. The Labor and Liberal parties are pitting two Chinese-Australian candidates against each other in Chisholm in the May 18 election. Either Liberal candidate Gladys Lui or Labor candidate Jennifer Yang is likely to become the first Chinese-Australian woman to be elected to Australia's House of Representatives.
Labor lawmaker Penny Wong on Tuesday blamed the Liberal Party for fake campaign news on WeChat.
"Our message to the prime minister is this: This is not what we do in Australia. We have robust political debates. We don't have major political parties engaging in fake news on this media platform or any other media platform," Wong said.
Mining billionaire Clive Palmer is a political party leader who is trying to exploit Australian concerns about Chinese investment. His United Australia Party has entered into a vote-swap deal with the Liberal Party that improves both parties' chances of winning House seats.
"I'm opposed to the Chinese because they're trying to invade our country, destroy our industries and take things over," Palmer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday. Palmer is seen as having a strong chance to win a Senate seat after spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money on political advertising.
Ma said the most important election issues for her readers were the economy and Australia's relationship with China, its biggest trading partner.
Chinese immigrants had traditionally favored Labor, she said. A Labor-led government gave diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China in 1972, seven years before the United States took the same step. A Labor government also allowed 20,000 Chinese students to stay in Australia permanently after the Chinese military killed student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
But Ma said Chinese voter support seemed to be shifting toward the conservatives. Opinion polls suggest Labor will win the election.