(CNSNews.com) – Relations between Australia and China have been on a downward spiral since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government led calls for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, but they lurched to a new low this week over a provocative – and faked -- social media posting by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman which has Morrison fuming.
The manipulated image posted by Zhao Lijian on an official Twitter feed depicts a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, who also appears to be being smothered in an Australian flag. “Don’t be afraid,” reads a caption. “We are coming to bring you peace!”
Above the image, Zhao tweeted, “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”
Pointedly, Zhao has “pinned” the tweet, making it is the first post visible at the top of his Twitter feed.
Morrison on Monday demanded that the foreign ministry apologize and remove the “utterly outrageous” image, declaring that “the Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”
Monday’s daily briefing at the ministry in Beijing featured not Zhao but a colleague, Hua Chunying, who rejected Morrison’s demand for an apology.
“It was the Australian government, she said, that should feel “ashamed” by the killing of Afghans by its troops in Afghanistan.
“The purpose of the image is showing people’s anger at such crimes.”
An independent inquiry into the conduct of Australian special forces troops in Afghanistan has found “credible information” to suggest at least 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners had been unlawfully killed, mostly in 2012-2013, recommending that 19 soldiers face criminal investigation. Morrison has appointed a special investigative office to gather evidence for possible prosecutions.
China’s human rights record at home – including its mass incarceration of more than a million minority Muslims in Xinjiang and its persecution of non-compliant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong adherents – is frequently condemned by Western governments, including Australia. Whenever that occurs Beijing demands that foreign parties not interfere in its internal affairs.
At Monday’s briefing, Hua denied in response to a question that there was any link between China’s criticism now of Australia, and Australia’s criticism this year over China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“This is not linked to the recent issues in China-Australia relations. This is about the discernment of right and wrong,” she said. “We must uphold principles on things like this.”
Asked whether Beijing was now moving away from a stance of non-interference in other countries’ affairs, Hua turned on the Australian reporter who posed the question.
“Don’t you think the crimes of these Australian soldiers should be condemned? Don’t you think the lack of basic sense of right and wrong on this issue on the part of Prime Minister Morrison and the Australian government should be questioned? What is wrong with China strongly condemning such brutal crimes committed by some Australian soldiers in Afghanistan? This is about human rights, but what’s it to do with internal affairs?”
Chinese foreign ministry officials and diplomats at embassies abroad have become considerably more aggressive in response to outside criticism over recent years, but especially in the face of U.S., Australian, and other disapproval of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak that emerged in Wuhan late last year.
Zhao is the same ministry official who used his Twitter account last March to promote a conspiracy theory accusing the U.S. Army of introducing the coronavirus to Wuhan in the fall of 2019.
Much of the campaign is conducted on U.S. social media platforms, which most Chinese citizens, ironically, are denied access to.
Going beyond social media rhetoric, Beijing has responded to criticisms this year by slapping tariffs on Australian imports, most recently a protectionist tariff of more than 200 percent on Australian wines, announced on Friday.
In an editorial on Tuesday, the Chinese Communist Party paper Global Times ratcheted up the insults, calling the Australian government “rude and arrogant,” “a warhound of the U.S.,” and “the most savage accomplice of U.S. suppression of China.”
Noting Australia’s criticism of China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and its decision to block the Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G networks, the CCP mouthpiece said, “Australia treats China's goodwill with evil. It is not worthy to argue with it. If it does not want to do business with China, so be it. Its politics, military and culture should stay far away from China – let’s assume the two countries are not on the same planet.”
A poll last June by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy found that the number of Australians who “trust in China to act responsibly in the world” has dropped from 52 percent to 23 percent in the past two years.
Eighty-two percent of respondents said they support imposing travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses, and 94 percent agreed that the government should work “to find other markets for Australia to reduce our economic dependence on China.”