China’s Foreign Ministry has said Australia should be ashamed of its war crimes in Afghanistan, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology over an inflammatory social media post from an official Chinese account.
Twitter was on Monday scrambling to assess whether a doctored image shared by a deputy director in China’s Foreign Ministry had violated its terms of service after Morrison called a press conference to demand the post be taken down, labelling it “repugnant” and “truly offensive”.
The image purported to show a special forces soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child with its head wrapped in an Australian flag as it cradled a lamb.
More than four hours after Morrison’s request for the image to be taken down, the social media giant had yet to respond. It has censored multiple replies to the image for violating its Twitter rules but not the original post itself.
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Twitter has not responded to requests for comment. The Morrison government is preparing to escalate its response to the company’s San Francisco headquarters on Tuesday if its demands are not met.
The post came three days after China hit Australia’s A$45 billion wine industry with a tariff of more than 200 per cent, in a major escalation of Beijing’s trade strikes on billions of dollars worth of Australian exports.
In his strongest comments on any Chinese government action since he became Prime Minister, a visibly angry Morrison said the Chinese government should be “totally ashamed of the post”, accused the Communist Party of being immature and said he hoped this “awful event may lead to a reset” in the relationship.
“It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” he said. “It is an absolutely outrageous and disgusting slur. Australia is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we are seeking it be removed from Twitter.”
In a swipe at Australia’s human rights record after the release of the Brereton inquiry report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman and information department deputy director Zhao Lijian called for Australia to be held accountable.
“These reports point to the hypocrisy of some Western countries who like to consider themselves as guardians of human rights and freedom,” Zhao said last week. The comments were later supported and repeated by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday evening fired back at Morrison, claiming Australia should be “ashamed” of its record in Afghanistan.
“The Australian side is reacting so strongly to my colleague’s Twitter,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “Does that mean that they think the cold-blooded murder of Afghans is justified? The Australian government should feel ashamed of this; they owe an explanation to the world and they should solemnly pledge such crimes will not be repeated.”
Morrison said the government-initiated Brereton report showed that Australia had honest and transparent processes for war crimes to be investigated. “That is what a free, democratic, liberal country does,” he said.
The report found up to 39 Afghanis had been murdered by Australian soldiers.
New national security laws imposed by Beijing on the former British colony in April punish dissent with sentences of up to life in prison.
The Australian Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong offered bipartisan support to Morrison’s comments.
“This is not the behaviour of a responsible, mature international power,” she said. “These tactics will be met with unified condemnation in the Australian community.”
The escalation is the latest instalment of China’s attempt to target Australia’s human rights record as it simultaneously ramps up trade pressure.
Ahead of the release of the Brereton inquiry on November 19, the Chinese embassy had flagged with Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that it would use multilateral forums to pursue Australia’s record on indigenous affairs and aged care. The threats were made at the same time as embassy officials warned the government to change course as they delivered a list of 14 grievances with Australia across the national security, diplomacy and business sectors.
Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson called China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, on Monday to express Australia’s deep disappointment with the post, but Cheng has yet to be formally summoned by the government.
The doctored image was created by Wuheqilin, a self-styled Chinese “wolf warrior” artist, who came to prominence for his pro-Beijing illustrations during the Hong Kong protests last year. After the furious reaction from Australia, Zhao pinned the tweet to the top of his social media feed, so it is the first post people searching his account see.
Herve Lemahieu, director of the power and diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute, said Morrison should not have responded to the “smear” and “low-blow” from a relatively junior Chinese official on Twitter.
He said Australia’s response was “overly emotive and defensive” and played right into China’s hands.
“We shouldn’t deploy our top asset – head of government – to respond to a propaganda post from some junior level official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. These guys seek attention and we have given it to them,” Lemahieu said.
“I would describe it as a smear and a sub-tweet, and I didn’t think it merited a response from the Prime Minister. It’s beneath the Prime Minister to have to react to that.”
Lemahieu said he believed the tweet was used as “bait to lure a response”, and also to switch the debate from China’s “blatant violation of the economic rules-based order” by imposing unfair tariffs on Australia.
“That [the tariffs] is the big story, and to me it looks like they are trying to switch the subjects and make Australia look like the villain. We shouldn’t have fallen for it,” he said.
“It is not a coincidence the Russians got involved as well. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they coordinated their efforts in the last few days in terms of seizing on what they think is a soft target.”
Michael Shoebridge, director of Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence and national security program, said social media post “shows again why Chinese soft power is collapsing internationally”.
“The Afghan war crimes inquiry and the Australian government moves to hold itself and Australian soldiers to account are in stark contrast to the Chinese government’s denials and cover-ups about its abuses in Xinjiang and its repression in Hong Kong,” Shoebridge said.
“The world knows about the alleged unlawful killings of 39 Afghans because of a forensic inquiry conducted by Australia authorities, with a 480-page report released publicly.
“In contrast, the world knows about the over one million Uighurs in detention camps in China because of the accounts of escapees, because of leaked Chinese government documents, and analysis of satellite imagery.”
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge called Chinese-Australian community leaders to speak out about the tweet, saying it was “important to remember that the Chinese Communist Party’s views are theirs alone”.
“I don’t believe this post reflects the views of the 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage who have chosen to call our great nation home,” Tudge said.