Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded Beijing to apologize for a provocative tweet depicting one his nation’s troops holding a bloody knife to an Afghan child’s throat. Instead, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s top spokeswoman shot back, asking whether Morrison lacks “a sense of right and wrong.”
The response was a hit in China, where spokeswoman Hua Chunying drew praise on social media for exuding the “style of a great power.” Her deputy, Zhao Lijian, was similarly cheered on for pinning the offending tweet to the top of his Twitter feed. China’s vast state media complex piled in, promoting stories about the ministry’s remarks while the official Xinhua News Agency dismissed Morrison’s demand as “utterly absurd” and the Global Times newspaper published an editorial describing Australia as “evil.”
The episode illustrates how China’s diplomatic rhetoric is increasingly driven by concerns at home, where President Xi Jinping’s promise of national rejuvenation and a torrent of overseas criticism led by the Trump administration are fanning nationalistic sentiments. China’s diplomats, who reportedly once received calcium tablets from citizens hoping they grow some backbone, are recasting themselves as one of the Communist Party’s most vocal defenders.
Diplomats like Zhao and Liu Xiaoming, the country’s ambassador to the U.K., have become celebrities on China’s internet and are widely known as “Wolf Warriors” in a nod to a “Rambo”-like action film series. The trend points to more messy disputes like the ones with Australia and Canada, and raises questions about China’s ability to build soft power to match its economic and military might.
“I do think this strategy is more about pleasing the domestic audience,” said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It is not working in terms of building China’s image globally. It is working in terms of inciting nationalistic sentiment domestically. It is not working persuading the more liberal-minded Chinese. It is working in terms of answering the call from the top leadership — and the last thing is what they really care about.”
The shift is just one way that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is facing a diplomatic landscape that has grown more combative after four years of Donald Trump’s Twitter-driven approach. Besides dismissing the complaints of world leaders like Morrison or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, China’s Foreign Ministry has regularly denounced top U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo as “evil” and “liars.”
China’s diplomats enjoy a captive audience in a tightly censored media environment where Twitter and Facebook are banned. The Foreign Ministry has used its state-controlled platforms to counter overseas criticism by highlighting what they describe as Western hypocrisy on issues like trade, security and human rights, appealing to the party’s narrative that it ended a “century of humiliation” by colonial powers.
The ministry’s spokespeople regularly swing from calling out other countries’ human-rights records to rigorously defending China’s. Allegations of abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang — including genocide claims — are countered for example by highlighting the U.S.’s treatment of Native Americans.
Hua defended Zhao’s tweet of the Australian troop image Monday as a fair comment on a report finding that the country’s special forces soldiers in Afghanistan were involved in 39 unlawful killings of prisoners, farmers and other civilians. She denied any link between the tweet to their broader dispute, which has accelerated since Australia earlier this year sought an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague’s tweet,” Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing. “Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter.”
Australian allies including New Zealand and the U.K. joined Canberra in condemning the tweet. On Tuesday, Morrison signaled a desire to avoid escalation in remarks to lawmakers, the Australian Associated Press reported, saying he didn’t want “further amplification” of the matter.
“The logic of Xi Jinping’s China, where low-level officials are performing loyalty tests back to the center, means there’s very little chance to admit something has gone wrong,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who’s now a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “If those are the terms that the prime minister wishes to reengage, he’ll be waiting for a very long time.”
Like Trump, China’s diplomats often seek to make journalists covering them part of the story with sound bites that are then circulated on social media. A video of Zhao rebutting a Canadian diplomat’s claim that China’s population control efforts among Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang fit the definition of genocide last month got more than 50 million views on the platform Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
The next day, Zhao closed the daily briefing by thanking the ministry’s fans. “We hope the website of Foreign Ministry and Weibo, WeChat and Douyin will continue to have your support,” he said.
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