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Holding up a mirror in Australia–China relations

Posted By on June 14, 2022 @ 14:30

In November 2021, almost one year after he had posted a computer-generated image [1] on Twitter of a grinning Australian soldier appearing to slit the throat of an Afghan child, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian bragged [2] about the success of his tweet at the inaugural China Internet Civilization Conference in Beijing.

‘With this tweet, we put Australia firmly in the dock and let the world know about the heinous crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan,’ Zhao told his audience.

The point of the seminar at which Zhao spoke these words was, remarkably, how China can create a ‘credible, lovable and respectable image of China’. That warm-and-cuddly sounding goal had been laid out by President Xi Jinping in May 2021 in a politburo study session about how China can improve its external propaganda.

But any suggestion that it signalled that Xi was putting his wolf-warrior diplomats on a leash was soon put to rest. Zhao told his audience that his tweet was an example of Beijing ‘taking the initiative to set issues’ and fighting an ‘active war’ for international public opinion.

‘The Prime Minister of Australia held a press conference after we posted the tweet and asked us to apologise and to delete the tweet. He also asked Twitter to delete it,’ Zhao boasted.

‘Instead of deleting the tweet, I pinned it. Twitter didn’t delete the image and text, but they hid it behind a warning, which only made people more curious to know what the hidden image was.’

There’s scant evidence that the aggressive approach of China’s wolf-warrior diplomats changes any hearts and minds outside mainland China. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yale scholars Daniel Mattingly and James Sundquist exposed more than 3,000 English-speaking web users in India to real messages from Chinese diplomats and found that [3] the more aggressive posts didn’t have broad appeal.

But from Zhao’s perspective, the tweet was a resounding success. In addition to causing Australia’s prime minister to publicly and, as it turned out, impotently protest the tweet, Zhao told his audience [4] in Beijing that it went on to prompt three days of questioning from the media at the daily Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conferences.

The point of Zhao’s tweet was to distract, and it succeeded. As Zhao told his audience [5], it’s better for Beijing to set the terms of the debate rather than fall into any rhetorical traps laid by its perceived opponents. In this case, Zhao was mounting a counterattack against allegations of human rights abuses in China, particularly in Xinjiang.

Instead, it was Prime Minister Scott Morrison who fell into Zhao’s rhetorical trap. Eventually, Morrison did parry back with a message [6] he should have led with in the first place. In a post on his WeChat account (note, this was before it was hijacked), Morrison said that Australia was a ‘free, democratic’ country and was using an ‘honest and transparent process’ to deal with the allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan.

‘Where there are alleged events that have taken place that require action, well we have set up the honest and transparent processes for that to take place. That is what a free, democratic, liberal country does,’ he wrote [7].

The message was censored on WeChat soon after in a move that still hasn’t been adequately explained by its parent company Tencent, though the article lives on to this day on the Australian embassy’s Weibo account [8].

The approach Morrison eventually took reflects a way of communicating with the Chinese public that some foreign diplomats working in Beijing call the ‘mirror technique’. It’s a strategy that involves holding a mirror up to yourself and being open and honest about your country’s own shortcomings.

It’s a technique that Ashley Rogers, head of communications at the British embassy in Beijing, has deployed several times in articles that he has written for the embassy’s Chinese social media accounts on democracy, media freedom, Xinjiang and LGBTQ+ issues.

The oblique approach is aimed at creating less heat and more light in an information environment that’s cut off from the rest of the world and primed with a nationalistic ideology. Instead of the comments section filling up with knee-jerk jingoistic responses, the hope is that there’s a chance for genuine discussion with and reflection from the Chinese audience.

‘We know that with our public Chinese audience, they will respond negatively to any direct criticism of the Chinese government,’ Rogers told me via email this week.

‘Therefore, we avoid communications that can be seen as lecturing or finger-pointing. Instead, we aim for a tone that is more conversational and creates space for discussion on these issues. Instead of talking about problems in China, we talk about problems the UK has faced and how we have been able to overcome these and make progress as a society.’

In my 2018 research on Weibo diplomacy and censorship [9], I discovered posts from the US embassy that prompted reflection from Chinese readers even when it seemed that wasn’t the intention of the post. A January 2018 post from the US embassy informing readers that they wouldn’t be able to continue posting to Weibo and WeChat during a government shutdown went viral, especially after state media gloated about it as yet another sign of American decline.

But even that post had to be censored after online discussion moved on from mere schadenfreude to a serious discussion comparing the US government with China’s own government.

As Rogers pointed out to me, China’s strict censorship regime means that the embassy’s audience is adept at reading between the lines. They don’t need the commentary to explicitly point to issues in China; they can figure it out themselves.

While some [10] (but not many) other embassies commemorated the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with posts of flickering candles that were very quickly censored this year, the UK embassy took a different approach, no doubt informed by the backlash [11] it received the last time it posted its own flickering candle.

Instead, the embassy posted an article, penned by Rogers, about the Peterloo massacre which took place in Britain in 1819. The article was censored, but after being live for five hours, Rogers notes—the first time that one of their articles that didn’t refer to China had ever been censored.

‘Within this time, it had been read around 50,000 times (10 times the readership for a normal WeChat article published on our channels) and sparked conversations across social media including on the Reddit: China_irl Chinese channel for Reddit,’ Rogers told me. ‘The comments were overwhelmingly positive.’

When Zhao posted the image of the Australian soldier and the Afghan child, he was sharing a piece of agitprop inspired by testimony uncovered through the Brereton war crimes inquiry. The Chinese Communist Party, by contrast, would never countenance any public inquiry into the Tiananmen Square massacre or, as Australians know too well, an inquiry into the origins of a global pandemic that has wracked the world.

The damning inquiry uncovered something terrible about our country, but it should be something that, unlike the CCP, we’re able to talk about, with humility in a way that shows we’re prepared to hold up a mirror to our own failings. As Rogers reminded me this week, as an open society, this is one of our real strengths and we should play to it.



Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/holding-up-a-mirror-in-australia-china-relations/

URLs in this post:

[1] posted a computer-generated image: https://twitter.com/zlj517/status/1333214766806888448?s=20&t=oXMFV3mY_XqVuF_oxO9ftA

[2] bragged: https://archive.ph/lkApY

[3] found that: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51cdc7e5e4b0d7474642bcb0/t/61030573b20c60377a1282ec/1627587958755/China_Public_Diplomacy_v4.pdf

[4] told his audience: https://archive.ph/lkApY#selection-1135.0-1137.149

[5] told his audience: https://archive.ph/lkApY#selection-1117.2-1117.48

[6] parry back with a message: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/censorship-risks-and-electoral-impact-australias-major-parties-need-to-drop-wechat/

[7] he wrote: https://twitter.com/fryan/status/1334323537973141505?s=21

[8] on the Australian embassy’s Weibo account: https://archive.ph/wip/QnGoV

[9] Weibo diplomacy and censorship: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/weibo-diplomacy-and-censorship-china

[10] some: https://twitter.com/fryan/status/1533649640075059200?s=20&t=H-9VxQ14_lrBSLrzAr33jw

[11] backlash: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-07/uk-embassy-tiananmen-candle-weibo-queen-/100196236

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