◎ The following analysis was first published in the Dec. 3 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.
On Nov. 29, PRC foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a digitally manipulated picture of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. He added that he was “shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers,” referring to media reports in mid-November about the Australian government’s four-year inquiry into battlefield misconduct in Afghanistan by Australian special forces.
Zhao’s tweet drew fierce outrage from Australia. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison denounced Zhao’s tweet as a “disgusting slur” and said that the PRC government should be “totally ashamed” of the post, which “diminishes them in the world’s eyes.” Australian MPs described the tweet with remarks such as “appalling,” a “grossly insulting attack,” or “gratuitous, inflammatory and deeply offensive.” Some MPs said that the PRC’s diplomacy is “little more than abuse,” while others called on the Australian government to “match words with action” that impacts Beijing’s interests and even decouple from China.
Australia’s allies, including France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, also condemned Zhao Lijian and the PRC over the offending tweet. “We stand with our Australian partners in calling out the [PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs] for spreading disinformation by fabricating an image of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan,” wrote U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Cale Brown in a tweet. “This is a new low, even for the Chinese Communist Party.” Brown added that the CCP’s “hypocrisy is obvious to all: “While it doctors images on Twitter to attack other nations, the CCP prevents its own citizens from reading their posts … As the CCP spreads disinformation, it covers up its horrendous human rights abuses, including the detention of more than a million Muslims in Xinjiang.” Brown concluded that “the CCP seeks to change the subject to avoid accountability. We can’t let them.”
Australia’s allies are also resorting to creative means to show solidarity and stand up to the CCP’s escalated bullying of Australia. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a grouping of 200 MPs from 19 countries, encouraged people to buy Australian wine during the festive period in support of Australia and in resistance to Beijing. The White House National Security Council tweeted: “Australian wine will be featured at a White House holiday reception this week. Pity vino lovers in China who, due to Beijing’s coercive tariffs on Aussie vintners, will miss out.” The CCP recently imposed tariffs of up to 212 percent tariffs on Australian wine imports, the latest in a string of punitive trade sanctions imposed on Australia this year.
The CCP has responded to the international backlash to Zhao Lijian’s tweet by engaging in “whataboutism,” or charging its critics with hypocrisy without addressing their valid points. State mouthpiece Xinhua ran a Nov. 30 op-ed with the headline, “How Dare the Offender Cry, ‘Stop, Thief!’” The headline of a Dec. 2 Xinhua commentary piece read, “Who Is the One Who Should Be Apologizing?” The PRC foreign ministry also doubled down on its aggressive rhetoric. In a Dec. 1 press conference, PRC foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying claimed that what Australian soldiers did was “crueler” than depicted in the manipulated picture, and Australia “made such a scene” with it as part of a “tough-on-China position.” Hua added that the PRC is “treated with this ‘I can, but you cannot’ approach” by “unbelievably arrogant hypocrites.”
1. The CCP’s “survival-dominance” dynamic is exemplified in Zhao Lijian’s offensive tweet, along with the CCP’s trade sanctions and “wolf warrior” diplomatic aggression against Australia this year.
When the CCP believes itself to be in a weak or less advantageous position, it goes into “survival” mode by avoiding or mitigating controversy. For instance, CCP propaganda outlets and “wolf warrior” diplomats were relatively restrained in their criticism of Australia in late 2019 after the Wang Liqiang defection case broke. Aside from the usual rhetoric and efforts to discredit Wang, the CCP did not take substantive action against Australia because it was struggling with economic deterioration at home and did not want to incur further U.S. sanctions by targeting a key American ally.
The CCP moves into “domination” mode when it finds itself in an “advantageous” position while perceiving its adversaries to be disadvantaged. For example, the CCP began strongly criticizing Australia for supporting an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in China earlier this year after the U.S. and other Western countries were struggling with the pandemic while Beijing appeared to be getting COVID “under control.” Sanctions on Australian exports were gradually applied and ramped up near the U.S. election period when President Trump was distracted by the hustings and less focused on foreign affairs. Now, the CCP is taking advantage of electoral chaos in America and the Biden camp’s “soft engagement”/“competition without confrontation” approach to China as an opening to bare its fangs, dominate U.S. allies, and stamp its authority in the region.
2. The CCP’s “survival-dominance” dynamic is born out of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and differs from the instinctual mentality of normal countries to preserve national interests. The CCP knows full well it is being hypocritical and outrageous with its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, but does so regardless as part of “unrestricted warfare” to struggle and win world hegemony. The Australian government must know that the core of the Zhao tweet is not so much a particularly egregious breach of diplomatic protocol than it is an ideological, informational, and propaganda war by the CCP against the strengthening global anti-CCP bloc. By virtue of its alliance with Washington, Australia belongs to this bloc.
Viewed in light of the CCP’s ideological, informational, and propaganda warfare, attempts by the Australian government’s attempt to reclaim the moral high ground by noting that it is at least addressing its human rights violations unlike the PRC unwittingly plays into the CCP’s hands. First, the Australian government is acknowledging precisely what the CCP wants the world to focus on (“Australia is an abuser of human rights, and so are her allies”). Second, heated international criticism of the PRC allows the CCP to engage in “whataboutism” (or as Hua Chunying puts it, “I can, but you cannot”), a classic Soviet propaganda tactic, to portray the PRC as the “victim” rather than the “bully” in the growing Sino-Aussie conflict. “Whataboutism” helps Beijing “legitimize” its naked intimidation of Canberra by crying wolf and claiming that the oppressed is really the oppressor.
Canberra would be better served by recognizing that the CCP is engaging in ideological, information, and propaganda warfare against Australia and her allies, and adopt more effective and targeted counterpropaganda measures. For instance, Australia and her allies should directly call out the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist tactics for what they are and declare that such “Orwellian nonsense” will never be accepted by the free world. Acknowledgement of Australia’s human rights issues should only be made with proper context and juxtaposition, such as noting that the abuses in Afghanistan were unearthed by a government committed to justice and transparency, and were committed by individuals who would be punished by law. By contrast, CCP leaders have ordered gross human rights violations like the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and as a rule strive to deny and cover up the Party’s abuses. Australia and her allies can even take the opportunity to go on the “offensive” by calling attention to the CCP’s many serious and “sensitive” human rights violations, including mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and live organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, the bulk of whom are Falun Gong practitioners. All the aforementioned measures can be adapted to counter a range of CCP propaganda moves, and their repeated use will force Beijing to think twice before picking another fight with countries in the anti-CCP bloc lest its attempt to play the “human rights” card rebounds on itself.
We wrote in July 2019 that the current Sino-U.S. conflict is “not just a trade war or a tech war, but a critical battle of ideology, value systems, and morality.” This applies to Australia’s recent troubles with the PRC. Canberra must recognize the true nature of the “China challenge” and react appropriately.
3. Beijing is looking to “kill the chickens to scare the monkeys” by targeting Australia. Should Canberra cave under pressure and abandon efforts to stand up to Communist China, other U.S. allies and partner nations will follow suit. Without allies, the U.S., and not the CCP, will be isolated on the world stage during a period of intense great power competition.
How Australia responds to the CCP is crucial. CCP propagandists and diplomats will gauge which of their tactics worked or failed with Australia before implementing them elsewhere. Inadequate or ineffective counters will embolden the CCP to attack Australia more fiercely and broaden its “counter-revolutionary” campaign to other countries.
4. The CCP’s growing boldness in dealing with Australia is likely connected with its presumption that it will be dealing with a “predictable” Biden administration come January 2021. Biden and his China advisers see positives in “China’s rise” and have yet to articulate a substantive strategy to counter the CCP threat. Team Biden has never expanded on what they mean by “working with allies against China,” and the vagueness of the “strategy” will have the CCP licking its chops. Meanwhile, Team Biden’s picks for key positions have made Communist China even more arrogant; after Western media reported that Biden is picking BlackRock executive Brian Deese to lead his National Economic Council, a PRC expert told Party propaganda outlet Global Times that Deese will “promote cooperation with China” because he represents the interests of large U.S. corporation who have “tasted the sweetness of doing business with China.”
Beijing’s bet on a Biden administration could turn out to be a very serious miscalculation in the event President Trump wins re-election via legal and constitutional means. A recent policy document by the State Department indicates that Trump will get even tougher on China in a second term. Also, the call to buy Australian wine by the U.S. and her allies could foreshadow the creation of an “informal alliance of Western nations to jointly retaliate when China uses its trading power to coerce countries,” according to White House plans reported by The Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, “when China boycotts imports, allied nations would agree to purchase the goods or provide compensation. Alternatively, the group could jointly agree to assess tariffs on China for the lost trade.”