Zhao Lijian, the most prominent of Beijing’s outspoken “wolf warrior” diplomats, was referring in the tweet to an Australian inquiry into alleged war crimes by its soldiers in Afghanistan. As Chinese-Australian relations have plummeted this year, Zhao has sharply criticized Australia regarding both its economic dealings and its conduct in Afghanistan. Russia, too, has cited Afghanistan as an example of what it calls the West’s failings and hypocrisy on the global stage.
An Australian government report, published Nov. 19 after a four-year probe, found “credible information” that 25 special forces soldiers unlawfully killed 39 prisoners, farmers and civilians over several years. More than a dozen soldiers have been dismissed, and the preliminary findings will now be followed up by a special investigator and could result in criminal charges.
Zhao told a daily news briefing on Friday that the Australian report “fully exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’ these Western countries are always chanting.” His counterpart in Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, echoed the sentiment in a jab at the West, saying that the report called into question the “true meaning” of the Australian government’s calls to “protect the rules-based world order.”
Zhao went further on Monday by tweeting an illustration by the nationalist Chinese artist known as Wuheqilin that showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a child, who is clutching a lamb, while standing over the Australian and Afghan flags. “Don’t worry, we are coming to bring you peace,” the artwork’s caption says.
“Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable,” Zhao said in his tweet, which he pinned to the top of his account.
The artwork appeared to be a heavily manipulated composite of a photograph and stylized digital illustration. After Zhao posted it, it immediately sparked an uproar, not only because of its grisly nature but also because it was not immediately clear whether it was based on a real photo of a killing. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the tweet a “falsified image” and “repugnant” and asked Twitter to remove it.
“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison said. “There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia, but this is not how you deal with them.”
Zhao’s tweet outraged and galvanized Australians. Senior opposition politician Penny Wong said in Parliament it was not the behavior of a “responsible, mature international power.” Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge, who argued publicly that the Chinese Communist Party does not speak for ethnic Chinese abroad, issued a statement calling the tweet “shameful and offensive to all Australians.”
“This evening I hosted a teleconference with Chinese Australian community leaders from around the country, and every one of them was just as appalled by the fake image,” he said. “The post does not reflect the views of the more than 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage who have chosen to make Australia their home.”
The Chinese government and state media in recent months have fiercely targeted Australia with criticism and economic punishment for what they perceive to be Canberra’s involvement in a U.S.-led Western effort to contain China. Beijing has been particularly incensed by Australian criticism of its crackdown in the tense peripheral regions of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and a new faction of assertive “wolf warrior” officials has risen up in the past year to stridently push back and slam the West as hypocritical and meddlesome.
As Western criticism has ramped up since 2018 over China’s assimilation campaign targeting its Muslim population, Chinese officials have increasingly pointed to the human and economic toll of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a counterargument.
The picture that Zhao tweeted on Monday was drawn by an artist in Beijing, known only on social media as Wuheqilin. He came to prominence in Beijing last summer after he drew illustrations condemning the Hong Kong protest movement as blindly worshiping the West, and he became feted in the nationalist, state-run Global Times newspaper as a “wolf warrior artist.”
It’s not the first time Zhao, a pioneer with his cavalier use of Twitter within a traditionally hidebound Chinese bureaucracy, has weighed in on U.S. foreign policy on the platform. On Thanksgiving Day in 2019, he tweeted sardonically that he wanted to “pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria.” He also accused the United States of criticizing China’s Xinjiang policies while wrestling with racial segregation — which sparked a spat with former national security adviser Susan E. Rice. This year, he launched a tweetstorm speculating that U.S. soldiers brought the novel coronavirus into Wuhan and seeded the pandemic, outraging Trump administration officials.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, defended her colleague on Monday and dismissed Morrison’s calls for an apology. The illustration Zhao tweeted drew from the Australian military’s report, which included details about how soldiers allegedly blindfolded and killed teenagers, Hua said, and she demanded that Canberra own up to its crimes.
“It’s justified for Australian soldiers to coldly kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan, but it’s unreasonable for people to condemn this cold crime?” she said. “You say the Chinese government should feel ashamed, but what about the Australian government that sent troops to Afghanistan? Australian soldiers committed such atrocious crimes. Shouldn’t the Australian government feel ashamed?”
Pervasive rumors of war crimes circulated for years within some Australian military units and were reported internally up the chain of command by whistleblowers, including an army lawyer, Maj. David McBride. The allegations were first aired publicly in 2017 after McBride leaked internal documents to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. McBride is awaiting trial on charges of unlawful disclosure of government documents.
Aside from Australia, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is also investigating alleged war crimes by American forces over strong objections from the U.S. government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo imposed sanctions in September on ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for probing U.S. conduct, which drew condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations.