Canberra has accused Beijing of sharing a "repugnant" and fake image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodstained knife to the throat of an Afghan child in a considerable escalation of diplomatic tensions.
Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister, said on Monday that his government had protested to Beijing over the "deeply offensive" post on Twitter by a spokesman for China's foreign ministry and demanded it be taken down.
"The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world's eyes," said Mr Morrison. "Australia is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we are seeking it be removed from Twitter."
Zhao Lijian, a regular critic of Australia, tweeted a computer-generated image depicting an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, which has its head wrapped in the country's flag. "Don't be afraid we are coming to bring you peace," ran a line of text underneath the image.
China castigated Australia this month after Canberra published a war crimes report, which alleged that 39 Afghan civilians had been murdered by members of the country's special forces.
“Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable,” Mr Zhao wrote.
China’s foreign ministry rejected Australia’s calls for an apology, saying Canberra should “feel ashamed” and “offer an official apology to Afghan people for its soldiers’ killing of innocent Afghan civilians”.
The tweet was the latest salvo to be fired in a diplomatic and trade dispute that erupted after Canberra demanded an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Zhao has said the war crimes report exposed Australia’s “hypocrisy” in relation to its regular promotion of “human rights” and “freedom”.
Mr Zhao has spearheaded a newly aggressive tone adopted by Chinese diplomats, known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after an explosion-packed action blockbuster with jingoist overtones.
He was labelled a “racist disgrace” last year by Susan Rice, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, after he posted a tweet about race relations in Washington neighbourhoods.
“There’s a saying ‘black in & white out’, which means that as long as a black family enters, white people will quit, & price of the apartment will fall sharply,” he wrote in July 2019.
Mr Zhao was promoted to foreign ministry spokesman the following month.
He also uses his Twitter account, which has more than 776,000 followers, to peddle disinformation. In March, he lent credence to a conspiracy theory that claimed Covid-19 may have been brought to China by the US military.
The image tweeted on Monday was created by a Beijing-based artist who goes by the name Wuheqilin, a self-described “wolf warrior” political painter who aims to “make people extremely angry”.
Past works by Wuheqilin have often targeted the US or other perceived enemies of Beijing. In one image, he created a caricature of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by Hong Kong protesters with the caption “You believe in a Pretender God”.
ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, reported on Monday that Russia had also criticised Canberra over what it described as a “truly shocking” war crimes report. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020