Zhao Lijian tweets fake photos, Australian PM criticizes shameful behavior and urges Beijing to apologize

China-Australia relations hit another low point when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, tweeting a picture of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the neck of an alleged Afghan child, blasted the Australian military for its cruel treatment of Afghans. The photo was revealed to be a propaganda piece created by a Chinese war wolf artist, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the official Chinese action as shameful and demanded an apology from Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying retorted that “Afghan lives are also lives,” and said the Australian government should apologize to the Afghan people.

The new diplomatic row between Australia and China stems from a fake image tweeted by Zhao Likian on Monday (30 March). The killing of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops is appalling. We strongly condemn this act and demand that they be held accountable.” The picture posted by Zhao depicted a Special Forces soldier cutting the neck of what he claimed was an Afghan child, the knife stained with blood and the child’s head wrapped in an Australian flag, with the words “Don’t be afraid we will bring you peace”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticized the Chinese authorities for publishing the fake images as “quite offensive,” and Australia has demanded an apology from Beijing. Morrison said he had asked Twitter to remove the fake image from Zhao Lijian’s account, and told reporters that Chinese officials were “appalling and there is no excuse to rationalize this behavior” and that Beijing should be ashamed of the posting.

Morrison told reporters that Zhao Lijian’s actions were disgraceful, saying, “The picture doesn’t prove to be authentic in any way, and the Chinese government should be ashamed of the posting. Morrison also argued that China’s actions would not only denigrate Australian soldiers, but also diminish their status in the international community.

Responding to reporters on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Australian government should be “ashamed of itself,” saying “the lives of the Afghan people are also lives. Hua and Zhao’s criticism of Australia stems from a report released last week by the Australian Defense Force. Nineteen current and former special forces soldiers are being investigated for the killing of 39 prisoners, farmers and civilians in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013, according to a report released last week by the Australian Defense Force.

The Australian Institute for Strategic Studies director Shubritz said the world learned that 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed because Australian authorities spent four and a half years conducting a forensic investigation and released a 480-page report in which Australian military personnel involved in the killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners faced justice. Shubiriz added that it was Beijing that should be held accountable, “because Beijing has not handled the situation in the same way that Australia has, acknowledging and confronting the mistakes that were made in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, such as the abuse of power.” In Xinjiang in particular, he added, “the world has heard about the actions of China’s authoritarian government in Xinjiang through the oral accounts of people who escaped from the camps and through leaked archives and satellite imagery.”

As for Zhao Lijian’s “war wolf” move against Australia, Associate Professor Fu Jinghua of the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong believes that China’s external response to Australia’s accusations of Beijing’s past has consolidated nationalist sentiment internally and won national support for the regime.

The subtext of China’s official goals externally is that Australia’s diplomatic relationship with China has been strained, from earlier calls for a WHO investigation into China’s role in the epidemic to recent high-profile Australian responses to China-related events, Fu says. Both countries have responded to each other diplomatically, especially in part to China, and especially to China’s human rights issues, as if China had taken the opportunity (the killing of Afghan civilians by Australian troops) to respond. Zhao Lijian quoted the Australian media as saying that China’s apparently downstream pressure on other countries is a continuation of past relations between the two countries. It is also relevant internally, as there have been many incidents in the past where diplomats have taken a bold stance outward, and China has received many positive responses domestically, with people supporting the country’s tough response, especially online, as a sign of consolidating nationalist sentiment at home.

Zhao Lijian’s tweets are in English and should be directed at Australia and the English-speaking world, but Fu Jinghua believes that China’s use of Twitter alone has little impact on how foreigners perceive their country.

Fu said: “China’s use of Twitter for outreach is actually very limited in terms of interaction, and the impact on the public overseas is limited, and the coverage is no more than that of the Australian media and Twitter. This storm has also been reported in Australia, China’s approach is only a diplomatic embarrassment to foreign countries, but will it actually change people’s attitude towards the government? Or will it intensify foreign nationals’ discontent with China? This is not surprising.

The cartoons posted by Zhao Lijian were created by “Wuhe Qilin”, a self-proclaimed “Wolf Painter” who drew pictures during the 2019 anti-regulation campaign in Hong Kong to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s tough stance against anti-regulation activists, and also used his drawings to satirize President Trump during the U.S. election.