China has doubled down on its criticism of Australia after refusing to remove a tweet featuring a digital illustration of an Australian soldier appearing to murder a child in Afghanistan and accusing the Australian government of using the row to divert attention from alleged “atrocities” by Australian soldiers.
Both governments issued statements on Tuesday as the matter spilled from Twitter to other public forums and the Australian government used the Chinese social platform WeChat to address “the fake photo” but also praise aspects of the Australian-Chinese relationship.
The Chinese foreign ministry refused to take down the controversial tweet by its spokesman, Zhao Lijian, despite demands on Monday by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that the tweet be deleted and China apologise.
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The tweet included an image targeting the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan as revealed by a recent domestic war crimes inquiry. It depicted a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of a child, who in turn is holding a lamb. The child’s face is draped in the Australian flag and a pained expression is visible.
Morrison called Zhao’s tweet containing the image “falsified”, “repugnant” and “utterly outrageous”.
On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Canberra issued a statement accusing the Australian government of trying to deflect attention from alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and stoking nationalism.
The embassy said it had received a phone call on Monday from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, who had complained to Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye about Zhao’s tweet.
“We would like to further stress the following: the rage and roar of some Australian politicians and media is nothing but a misreading of, and overreaction to, Mr Zhao‘s tweet,” the official statement said.
“The accusations made are simply to serve two purposes. One is to deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers. The other is to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties. There may be another attempt to stoke domestic nationalism.”
Canberra later released a statement in Chinese on the prime minister’s official account on WeChat, the most popular Chinese social media messaging system.
The article, titled “A message from the Prime Minister”, was written in the first person in an apparent attempt to appeal to a Chinese audience. Morrison said he was proud of the Australian army and emphasised that the Australian government would handle problems revealed in the war crimes report in a “transparent and honest way”.
Morrison was quoted praising China’s contribution towards Australia throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and said he was happy to welcome overseas Chinese students who arrived in Australia.
“The post on the fake photo of the Australian soldier will not weaken people’s respect and praise towards the Australian-Chinese community, and it will not cripple our friendship with the Chinese people,” the statement said.
Twitter has not taken down Zhao’s tweet despite Canberra’s calls, but said it had labelled it as “sensitive media”. By Tuesday afternoon, the tweet was pinned to the top of Zhao’s tweets.
Twitter said Zhao’s account was labelled as a Chinese government account and already provided the public with context to “better inform their interpretation of its intent”.
“For world leaders, politicians and official government accounts, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy sabre-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the statement said.
China’s state media repeated the narrative from the Chinese foreign ministry and echoed the sentiment of Zhao’s original tweet.
“What the Australian government should do now is to reflect deeply and bring the perpetrators to justice, make a formal apology to the Afghan people and solemnly promise the international community they will never commit this terrible crime again,” a People’s Daily commentary said.
State tabloid Global Times published an interview with the illustrator, known as Wuheqilin, who said his image was inspired by the findings of an Australian war crimes inquiry published last month. The inquiry found evidence that 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners and civilians were killed by 19 Australian soldiers.
“Although the image is not a factual photo, it was created on the basis of facts and expressed as a metaphor,” Wuheqilin said. “I hope more people will see this image and pay attention to this tragedy that took place in reality.”
Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern weighed in and said her government had also raised concerns with China about the image.
“New Zealand has registered directly with Chinese authorities our concern over the use of that image,” Ardern told reporters in parliament in the capital, Wellington.
“It was an unfactual post, and of course that would concern us. So that is something we have raised directly in the manner that New Zealand does when we have such concerns.”
In a show of American backing for Australia, the US National Security Council ridiculed China’s recent decision to impose a 212 per cent tariff on Australian wine, which the Chinese government said was to stop domestic production from being damaged by cheap imports.
“Australian wine will be featured at a White House holiday reception this week. Pity vino lovers in China who, due to Beijing’s coercive tariffs on Aussie vintners, will miss out. #AussieAussieAussieOiOiOi!,” the NSC tweeted on Tuesday.
The Twitter dispute is the latest in an intense downward spiral of Sino-Australian relations. Recently, trade has been the focus of the tensions, with China taking a range of informal actions against Australian products, including coal, timber, cotton, beef and wine.
But the Chinese foreign ministry said the latest dispute had nothing to do with the Sino-Australia relations.
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