Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s demand that the Chinese government or Twitter delete an illustration showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat has been ignored, with neither the social media giant nor the Communist regime taking action.
The artist behind the meme that has further torpedoed Canberra’s relationship with Beijing is an online sensation, with his computer-generated political artworks generating millions of likes and nearly 600,000 followers on Chinese social media site Weibo.
“The image was designed by the artist to really push the envelope of what is allowed on social media platforms,” Fergus Ryan, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The New Daily.
“In China they call it ‘edge ball content’, a term from ping pong for a shot that barely makes it on to the table.”
The disturbing image was tweeted by Zhao Lijian, deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Monday afternoon.
It was accompanied by condemnation of Australia’s Defence Force over the recent war crimes report in which special forces troops were accused of 39 war crime murders of Afghan citizens.
Allegations in the Inspector-General of the ADF’s report, released two weeks ago, include a key claim that Australian soldiers cut the throats of two young boys and dumped their bodies in a river.
Mr Morrison called a snap press conference just minutes after the tweet, demanding China apologise and Twitter remove the tweet.
“It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever,” Mr Morrison said of the computer-generated image.
“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post.”
He called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to “re-engage” in dialogue with Australian politicians.
TND asked Mr Morrison on what grounds he wanted the tweet deleted.
He answered that it was a “falsehood” and said Twitter should remove it as a “common decency”.
After being tweeted at noon on Monday, the tweet remained live as of 6am on Tuesday.
Indeed, Mr Zhao had ‘pinned’ the tweet to the top of his profile.
The New Daily contacted Twitter for comment.
Responding later on Monday, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying refused to criticise her colleague’s tweet, saying “Afghan lives matter” and asking whether Australia “think the cruel killing of Afghan lives is justified?”
“Shouldn’t the Australian soldiers feel ashamed?” she said at a press conference.
It is a popular cartoon that condemns the Australian Special Forces ’s brutal murder of 39 Afghan civilians. On what ground does Morrison feel angry over the use of this cartoon by the spokesperson of Chinese FM? It’s ridiculous and shameless that he demanded China to apologize. pic.twitter.com/QkBSXyf1uY
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 30, 2020
Hu Xijin, editor of Chinese state media organisation The Global Times, tweeted that Mr Morrison’s calls for an apology were “ridiculous and shameless”.
Dr Kevin Carrico is a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University.
He said the tweet, from one of China’s most visible public officials, was an “attempt to score points”.
“It’s the same type of silliness I’ve come to expect from the Chinese government. It’s just done in a far more confrontational way than has been done in the past,” he told TND.
It comes at a time of escalating tensions between Beijing and Canberra, with a furious China slapping a series of trade sanctions on Australian wine, beef, barley, and more.
Chinese diplomats released a list of 14 “grievances” about Australia to Channel Nine recently.
Dr Carrico said Mr Zhao was a controversial figure in international politics, known for launching barbs on Twitter in diplomatic spats.
However, the Monash University expert thought it unlikely Mr Zhao had posted the meme without approval from Chinese government superiors.
“It seems like ideology and scoring points takes precedence over diplomatic effort. It seems like Beijing just doesn’t care,” Dr Carrico said.
“I don’t have 100 per cent certain evidence … but he’s not just spontaneously tweeting random thoughts.”
This is a despicable new low in China's campaign of antidiplomacy against Australia. What an act of self-harm to the dignity and credibility of China's foreign ministry. The world is watching https://t.co/UjpGXntxRi
— Rory Medcalf (@Rory_Medcalf) November 30, 2020
Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, called the tweet “a despicable new low” for China.
Mr Ryan, an analyst with ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said the meme was a “poke in the eye” from China as Australia tried to mend the relationship.
“The relationship is at its worst in many decades, but there’s a normal expectation when overtures are made that the door isn’t slammed shut in your face,” he said.
“Australia is very aware it’s in the doghouse, diplomatically speaking.”
Who is Zhao Lijian?
Mr Zhao is deputy director of China’s foreign ministry.
An outspoken official who has pushed discredited theories that American troops brought the coronavirus to China, he is among China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomat class, gaining notoriety for his use of Twitter to attack critics in diplomatic disputes.
A BuzzFeed article from December 2019 described Mr Zhao as ‘Beijing’s chief troll’.
“He is a Communist Party official who did a better job at manoeuvring than other officials,” Dr Carrico said.
“He he seems to relish his spicy memes and his burns. He’s good at doing that for a particular audience, but I don’t think he’s someone who should be taken seriously.”
Mr Ryan said Mr Zhao had “form for this kind of tweet”.
“He used to be second in charge in China’s embassy in Pakistan, where he built up a reputation for these kinds of provocative tweets,” he told TND.
“At the time that was seen as unusual, because Chinese diplomats – like most diplomats – were normally more measured in their messaging.
“But after the success he had on Twitter with that style of messaging, he was promoted, so that was a clear signal that this type of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ was approved from high in Beijing.”
Who made the photo?
Despite claims from the Australian government and media that the graphic was “disinformation”, “doctored” or “faked”, it is instead a computer-generated illustration.
It was created by a young Chinese man called Wuheqilin, who describes himself as a computer graphic artist.
He has more than 570,000 followers on popular Chinese social service Weibo, where he posts detailed and disturbing hyper-realistic political illustrations.
Previous illustrations have criticised US President-elect Joe Biden, and tackled issues including police brutality.
It is unclear how Mr Zhao ended up posting it on his personal Twitter account, but Mr Ryan said it had gone viral on Weibo with many thousands of likes since being posted on November 23.
Mr Ryan called it “propaganda art”.
“The danger in calling it a doctored photo is that leads people, including our foreign minister, to call it disinformation, which I don’t think it is. It’s a symbolic representation of a war crime that allegedly happened, according to the Brereton inquiry,” he said.