What should you do when a large and powerful trading partner known for its human rights abuses publicly and hypocritically admonishes you on Twitter over your own, lesser-known human rights abuses, crimes of which you are rightfully ashamed?
Do you: a) express your grievances behind closed doors, privately asking foreign leaders to remove the offending material without drawing further attention to it; b) publicly demand an official apology, labeling the callout “repugnant” and “offensive”; or c) troll them back with GIFs of their own more infamous abuses?
If you picked b) or c), you’d be in line with Australia’s loud and wounded response to an inflammatory tweet by the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s controversial spokesman Zhao Lijian. On Monday, Zhao shared a graphic, photoshopped image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child with their head wrapped in an Australian flag, a reference to a recently released report into war crimes in Afghanistan. “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!” reads the caption. “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers,” tweeted Zhao. “We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable.”.
Zhao has a record of trolling Western nations. In one notable instance last year, he tweeted a map depicting racial segregation in the District of Columbia to deflect criticism of the internment camps for Muslims in Xinjiang.
The image by nationalist artist Wuheqilin is a reference to the recently released findings of a four-year inquiry into war crimes committed by Australia’s elite Special Air Services during the war in Afghanistan. Despite reports of disturbing activity over the years, the Brereton Report, as it is known, has shocked Australians, finding evidence of 39 unlawful killings of civilians and prisoners, many of which were deliberately covered up, and a deeply unhealthy culture within the special forces. It found that junior soldiers were encouraged by senior ones to execute prisoners in a process known as “blooding,” while weapons were sometimes planted on unarmed corpses to justify killings. The photoshopped image in question is the artist’s interpretation of a particularly disturbing alleged incident, in which Australian forces stopped two 14-year-old boys on suspicion of being Taliban sympathizers and slit their throats.
The independent report was commissioned by the Australian Defence Force, and the government has now committed to criminal investigations and established an office of a special investigator, making Zhao’s call for accountability seem rather unfair. But the “repugnant” work he shared is no more shocking than the allegations at hand.
Nevertheless, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to condemn the tweet and demand its removal, saying at a press conference, “The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. … It is an absolutely outrageous and disgusting slur,” before calling on China to reengage in a civil dialogue and reminding them the world was watching. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne demanded an apology, and both sides of Australian politics are united in their censure: The Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong called it “gratuitous” and “inflammatory,” Labor MP Peter Khalil, “an insult to Australians,” and Conservative MP Trent Zimmerman “one of the most provocative things another nation could do.”
Australians themselves are also pretty miffed, with journalists and public figures lining up to decry the graphic (“ISIS-level stuff,” one major paper’s international editor wrote), while a stream of replies to Zhao’s tweet reference the Uighurs, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. By morning, “Tiananmen Square” was trending in Australia, and the front page of Sydney’s the Daily Telegraph was a full-page photo of “Tank Man” facing down the tanks. “Shocked by murder of Chines civilians & students by Chinese soldiers,” it read. “PS This photo is real.”
China, unsurprisingly, has refused to back down, rejecting calls to apologize and saying it is Australia that ought to be ashamed. In a Chinese press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying suggested that Australia should “do some soul-searching”, arguing it should be the one apologizing to the Afghan people (something it has, in fact, done). China’s state-run Global Times published an editorial saying that Morrison should “kneel down on the ground, slap himself in the face, and kowtow to apologize” in a live telecast (this he has not done), while Wuheqilin is apparently enjoying the attention, warning he’ll create another in the wake of Morrison’s demands for an apology. Twitter, like China, has refused government requests to take the post down.
The tweet and accompanying shame game come in the midst of escalating tensions between the two nations, as Australia attempts to stand its ground with its powerful neighbor and largest trading partner. Things have been especially tense between the two since April, when Australia led the charge in calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, for which China accused Australia of pandering to the U.S. Since then, China has applied numerous tariffs and trade restrictions on major Australian imports and, two weeks ago, handed Australian media a list of 14 demands for government policy positions it wanted reversed, leading the U.S. Embassy to accuse them of foreign interference. Australian-Chinese relations, Australia’s national daily paper reports, are now at a 50-year low, despite recent efforts to deescalate the situation.
An outraged Morrison spoke on behalf of a slighted nation on Monday, but the government’s angry response to the admittedly crude potshot doesn’t appear to have been an effective one. An apology from China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats was always unlikely, and Australia’s pride-driven reaction has only ratcheted up tensions, causing China to double down on its criticism while ignoring the accompanying plea for dialogue (Morrison has since called for calm among his party, telling members on Tuesday that the issue needed no further amplification). What’s more, the loud condemnation of the “fictitious,” “falsified” image has only magnified what it portrays: a shameful incident that received little attention overseas—until now. In writing about Australia for an international audience, I often find myself drawing international attention to our national sins, but this time, the government has brought it upon themselves. In reacting to this intentionally inflammatory propaganda, Morrison has created an international story. The conservative Australian government doesn’t seem to have learned much from its previous lesson on the Streisand effect: Asking for an image to be taken off the internet only draws more attention to it.
Morrison could have dismissed the post when asked, or implied that it was merely an unruly bureaucrat in need of pulling into line. Instead, Australia was goaded into defending its military, providing the Chinese with the exact reaction they wanted. China’s state-run Global Times may be akin to propaganda, but its editorial poses one good question: “How could this Australian PM be so ridiculously arrogant to pick on Chinese FM spokesperson’s condemnation against the murder of innocent people?” And while Zhao’s post is certainly—as one human rights campaigner put it—“breathtakingly, gobsmackingly hypocritical,” it doesn’t change the fact that it lies close to what’s been alleged. Australian leaders now seem more outraged by the artwork than the actual events it alludes to; as writer Jeff Sparrow noted, “imagine if the Chinese government had tweeted a photo showing what the SAS actually did.”
The Australian right doesn’t handle shame well, but there’s plenty for Australia to be ashamed of, from a colonial history to imprisoning asylum-seekers to lots and lots of racism. The nation is ashamed of its war crimes, or was up until a few days ago, with phrase such as “shameful,” “appalling,” and “a difficult moment for Australia” being bandied about by the same leaders and outlets now condemning Zhao’s tweet; but for a number of reasons—guilt, pride, denial, pain—being told to feel ashamed makes Australians angry. Admittedly, it’s grating to be chastised by a country like China, with its own egregious record. But few countries are immune from hypocrisy when it comes to human rights, including Australia. The Chinese Foreign Ministry apparently has plans to go after Australia’s record on Indigenous affairs and aged care next. “Why keep silent?” one Chinese official said.
Australia has cried foul here, reminding China that the rest of the world is watching its bullying behavior closely. It’s a message Australia would do well to remember in this international human rights shame game. We all know what China is capable of. Today, as a result of Morrison’s diplomatic strong man attempt, a larger number of people in the world know what Australia is capable of, too.