The social media messaging app, WeChat, is often portrayed in expert and media commentary as being inherently incompatible with democracy in Australia because the platform is subject to the scrutiny and censure of China, an authoritarian one-party state. This study provides the first in-depth snapshot of how politicians and everyday Chinese-Australians use WeChat at the grassroots level during council elections. It finds that WeChat, in these circumstances, can be broadly compatible with liberal democracy and significantly enhances democratic participation in a multicultural society.
Using the December 2021 New South Wales (NSW) local elections as a case study, this paper analyses qualitative data collected from private group chats, interviews with Chinese-Australian politicians, and editors from media outlets on WeChat. The study finds that, overall, the app expanded, rather than restricted, Chinese-Australian voters’ access to quality news content to better inform their choices at the ballot box. The platform was used to bridge gaps in the provision of public services and information to Chinese-Australian communities and facilitated their civic engagement.
Despite its benefits, WeChat is afflicted by issues relating to censorship, transparency, online polarisation, and mis- and disinformation. Australia’s stark political differences and fraught bilateral relations with China add additional layers of complexity to managing these challenges. However, improved oversight and governance arrangements, alongside enhanced funding for reliable Chinese-language online media, would help offset the risk of foreign influence and better harness the platform’s utility for bolstering the participation of Chinese-Australian communities in Australia’s democracy.