Australian-Chinese relations have taken a dramatic dip following a tweet by China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that included a doctored image depicting an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
The tweet said: ‘Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable.’ It is a clear reference to the report into Australian special forces war crimes in Afghanistan.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded the tweet's deletion and an apology. In reply, the Chinese government attacked Australia’s motives: ‘One is to deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities committed by certain Australian soldiers. The other is to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties.’
Many Australians were outraged by the image, whilst others have focused on the atrocities themselves:
It s absolutely disgusting and offensive, as well as Fake #ChinaTweet pic.twitter.com/1XuChWn0qq
— JimsIrrigation (@IrrigationJims) November 30, 2020
Human Rights Watch Australia's Elaine Pearson called out the Chinese government's human rights record:
As I told @guardian, a Chinese diplomat's tweet re ??inquiry into war crimes is breathtakingly, gobsmackingly hypocritical. We are waiting for independent investigations into widespread systematic abuses by China in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong etc. https://t.co/HTdHWMu5XN
— Elaine Pearson (@PearsonElaine) November 30, 2020
Many Twitter responses centred on criticism of the Australian government response. Some believed Scott Morrison had given the Chinese Communist Party just what it wanted:
Remember, Twitter isn't accessible in China, so the fake image tweet wasn't for the domestic audience. It was designed to remind us of our impotence, and Scott duly obliged.
— marquelawyers (@marquelawyers) November 30, 2020
Relations between the two nations have been deteriorating over several years and came to a head when Australia called for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus. In mid-November, China identified 14 grievances against Australia in a document leaked by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. China's complaints include: blocking of foreign investment in Australia; banning of Huawei Technologies from the 5G network development; foreign interference legislation; and the growth of closer defence ties with allies such as the United States and Japan.
Australia has been reeling from a series of trade disputes with China, which have seen some exports to its biggest trading partner blocked and crippling tariffs imposed on others. Australian wine exporters face tariffs that exceed 200 percent in some cases. A recent threat by Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, to take these cases to the World Trade Organization may have been the catalyst for China’s provocative social media attack.
Birmingham even suggested that consumers might boycott Chinese goods:
Trade Min. Simon Birmingham says a Chinese official's tweet might make Australians think twice before buying Chinese-made goods.
“… terrible, appalling, shocking images … will reverberate in their minds as they make those purchasing decisions.”#SenateQT #auspol @politicsabc
— Tahlia Roy (@TahliaRoy) November 30, 2020
Chinese political artist Fu Yum, who is responsible for the original image, has threatened to produce another in retaliation for criticism of his image. Chinese Australian artist Badiucao responded with his own graphic images, pointing out CCP hypocrisy:
Australia‘s war crime in Afghanistan is indeed a national disgrace & must b condemned.
However i wander when China will allow an independent investigation on its own genocide on #Uyghur #Tibetans & brutal crackdown on HK？！@ScottMorrisonMP @MarisePayne @SenatorWong pic.twitter.com/KLSmLWKurk
— 巴丢草 Badiucao (@badiucao) November 30, 2020
Australia has received strong public support from close allies, though Donald Trump has been silent. New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern raised her concerns directly with the Chinese government.
This campaign is a small token on the economic front:
China boycotted Australian wine because the Australian government spoke up about human rights, the Uighur genocide and oppression in Hong Kong. Please buy Australian wine in solidarity with Australia and to tell the Chinese Communist Party where to stick their boycott https://t.co/QlnScWihjm
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) December 1, 2020
However, many Aussies do not look forward to the prospect of a trade war:
Looks like Morrison is going to destroy the village to save himself and drape himself in the national flag. This China spat is going to be disastrous for the economy. #auspol
— Eddy Jokovich (@EddyJokovich) November 30, 2020
The Australian government would clearly like to reset the relationship but there is no clear path ahead at present. Talk of softening the conflict with China seems to be going nowhere. Scott Morrison has even taken to the Chinese social media platform WeChat to put his point of view to Chinese Australians and the people of China:
The post of a false image of an Australian soldier does not diminish our respect for and appreciation of our Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China.
The PM may be caught in a no-win situation:
Not sure if this is impressive or what Chinese citizens will think #China #Australiahttps://t.co/H9gvDVN9GG
— Lid MyZen.Blog ?☘??? (@Lid05) December 1, 2020
To add fuel to the fire, another scandal involving Australian troops in Afghanistan has emerged:
What are we to do with this kind of evil? It goes so far beyond language. Australian soldiers in Afghanistan used a dead Afghan's prosthetic leg as a drinking cup, a trophy they used and played with for months. https://t.co/kU4IEmTM4f
— Omar Sakr (@OmarjSakr) December 1, 2020
The BBC’s Ros Atkins summed up a dreadful week:
China offers Australia ‘advice’ on how to deal with its actions in Afghanistan, Scott Morrison posts on WeChat, there's a campaign to drink Australian wine – and as this row escalates, it's underpinned by a global power struggle. Produced @CourtBembridge https://t.co/ai5KMXc5aQ pic.twitter.com/IcykSLYn1e
— Ros Atkins (@BBCRosAtkins) December 1, 2020
Well-known Australian commentator Jane Caro expressed the fears of many fellow Australians:
A question. The end game of this spat (please god, that’s all it is) between Australia & China. Does anyone have a strategy whereby this works out well for us? If you do, please share it. Many business people are currently tearing their few remaining hairs out.
— Jane Caro (@JaneCaro) November 30, 2020
Meanwhile, the diplomatic downward spiral has continued with the removal of Scott Morrison's post by WeChat. Even that has been a target of ridicule on social media:
WeChat deletes Morrison’s message to Chinese Australians while Twitter allows the “offensive” Tweet by China to stay up.
Morrison is not going to win this chest thumping bout.
He should never have started it#auspol #china https://t.co/Lm65sAi1GK
— Maralyn Parker (@MaralynParker) December 2, 2020