An inflammatory tweet by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan has emboldened hawkish Australian politicians who are pushing for Canberra to take an even stronger stand against Beijing.
One human rights campaigner accused the Chinese government of being “breathtakingly, gobsmackingly hypocritical” given its own record in places including Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Other analysts said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman with China’s foreign ministry, was “one of the first voices of wolf warrior diplomacy” and Beijing was unlikely to apologise.
Zhao’s tweet, posted on Monday, seized on a recent report from a four-year-long official investigation into the conduct of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan and said he was “shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers”.
The tweet was accompanied by a faked image that appears to depict an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a young civilian holding a sheep, together with the words “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”
Scott Morrison’s government swiftly demanded an apology from the Chinese government and for the “repugnant” post to be pulled down.
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That request was communicated through a snap press conference by the Australian prime minister, along with a phone call from the foreign affairs department chief to the Chinese ambassador in Australia. Australian diplomats were also asked to make representations to their counterparts in Beijing.
The independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick called on the Morrison government to go further and to expel about two-thirds of China’s 143 diplomats and consular staff, saying its current presence was considerably more than any other country had in Australia.
Patrick described the tweet as a “grossly insulting attack” and said it left “little doubt that the Chinese Communist regime has no interest in improving relations with Australia at this time”.
He said cutting the diplomatic presence would send “an unambiguous message to the Chinese foreign ministry that we won’t accept their outrageous behaviour and we’re prepared to match words with action that directly impacts on their interests”.
“China’s ‘diplomacy’ is now little more than abuse and Australian ministers are ignored by their Chinese counterparts. China’s diplomats are not working to build good relations – quite the contrary,” Patrick said.
“While China could be expected to retaliate against Australia’s diplomatic presence in China, the current state of bilateral relations is such that Australia’s diplomats are effectively excluded from Chinese government decision makers anyway.”
The New South Wales Coalition backbencher Concetta Fierravanti-Wells pushed for a radical move to try to extricate Australia from its economic reliance on China – which remains the country’s largest trading partner, even as a series of trade actions has strained ties.
“The tweet was appalling but not surprising given Beijing’s history of bellicose and illegal actions across many fronts,” she said.
“It reinforces my warnings against the CCP over a long period of time and my calls for us to decouple from China.”
Others sought a more measured response. Trent Zimmerman, an MP from the Liberal party’s moderate wing, said the tweet would appal Australians and shock the international community. He told Sky News the tweet would likely “end up being an own goal for China”.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, joined the government in condemning the action by the Chinese government as “gratuitous, inflammatory and deeply offensive”.
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Wong – who has previously called on the Morrison government to take a stronger leadership role in handling the China relationship – said the tweet was “not the behaviour of a responsible, mature international power”.
She said the allegations in the Brereton report about special forces in Afghanistan had “horrified Australia”, but added: “What sets us apart is the dignified, transparent and accountable manner of our response. That is what happens within the Australian democracy.”
Analysts noted Zhao’s record of using Twitter “to mock and troll governments and researchers outside of China”. Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, described Zhao as an original voice of wolf warrior diplomacy.
“In March he tried to blame the Covid-19 pandemic on the United States army, and is yet to apologise or delete that tweet, although it has been labelled by Twitter,” Kassam said.
“In China today, this kind of signalling is often aimed at an audience of one – Xi Jinping.”
Kassam said Zhao’s “vile tweet” about Australians soldiers accused of war crimes was not likely to be official government policy, but there had been an ongoing push from Beijing to publicise human rights abuses abroad in an attempt to expose hypocrisy of those who dared to criticise China’s policies.
She noted that China was unlikely to back down and Morrison was “likely to be waiting a long time” for the apology he was requesting.
The controversy over the tweet had served to sideline discussion about the significant wine tariffs announced by China late last week, Kassam said.
Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch in Australia, told Guardian Australia the tweet from Zhao was “breathtakingly, gobsmackingly hypocritical”.
“Obviously war crimes are a very serious matter, but the Australian government has taken steps to make that public and hold perpetrators to account,” Pearson said.
“Meanwhile you have the Chinese government engaged in widespread, systematic human rights violations that have been repeatedly raised by UN experts, from dismantling democracy in Hong Kong, to arbitrarily detaining one million of its citizens in Xinjiang. What steps is the Chinese government taking?”
Pearson said if China “wants to play the game of calling out human rights concerns publicly”, it needs to accept that foreign governments are “quite rightly raising their own concerns with China”.
Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy in Australia. However, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of China’s nationalistic state media outlet the Global Times, tweeted that Morrison had no right to feel angry over “the use of this cartoon” and the calls for an apology were “ridiculous and shameless”.
The Australian government reaffirmed on Monday its push for a return to ministerial and leader-level talks to resolve the tensions between the two countries.