Tensions between China and Australia hit a new low after a fake image of an Australian soldier smiling and slitting the throat of an Afghani child was tweeted by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday, prompting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call it “truly repugnant” and demand that it be removed and Beijing issue an apology.
Although Twitter is blocked in China, it is regularly used by Chinese diplomats. Zhao’s tweet, pinned to the top of his Twitter account, was “liked” by 60,000 followers, after Twitter labeled it as sensitive content but declined Canberra’s request to remove the image, according to Reuters.
On Tuesday, in a direct appeal to the Chinese people, Morrison took to WeChat to criticize the “false image”, while offering praise to Australia’s Chinese community, reports Reuters.
Morrison’s office reportedly confirmed that the material published on the PM’s official account was deleted overnight.
A message from WeChat states that the content “involves the use of inciting, misleading, or contrary to objective facts, text, pictures, videos, etc., fabricate social hot spots, distort historical events, and confuse the public.”
In the WeChat post, Morrison defended Australia’s handling of the Brereton war crimes investigation into the actions of special forces in Afghanistan and said Australia would deal with “thorny issues” in a transparent manner.
Reuters noted that by Wednesday, Morrison’s message had been read by some 57,000 WeChat users.
Morrison also reassured Chinese Australians they are welcome, as well as took a swipe at China over Australia's response to the war crime allegations, insisting that the incendiary image would not diminish Australia’s respect for the Chinese community at home or abroad.
“The post of a false image of an Australian soldier does not diminish our respect for and appreciation of our Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China,’’ he wrote.
Beijing rebuffed Morrison’s calls for an apology, with its embassy in Paris on Wednesday saying the fake image was a caricature, noting that France has previously loudly defended the right to caricature.
Australia was seeking to “deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers”, the Chinese embassy said.
Ealier, Fu Yu, also is known as Qilin, claimed he created the manipulated image to criticize Australia over the damning Brereton war crimes inquiry.
The Brereton investigation looked into alleged war crimes committed by Australian SAS forces and found there was "credible information" to suggest they had murdered at least 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, including children.
Australia said last week that 19 current and former soldiers would be referred for potential criminal prosecution, cited by Reuters.
WeChat has 690,000 active daily users in Australia, noted Reuters, and in September told an Australian government inquiry it would prevent foreign interference in Australian public debate through the use of its platform.
Tencent, the Chinese parent company of WeChat, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters regarding the deletion of Morrison’s post.