Twitter attack will only further harm China’s collapsing soft power

The contrast between Australia’s open system of government and China’s authoritarian system was put on graphic display yesterday through Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, when he tweeted a fake image and criticised Australia for human rights abuses in Afghanistan—and not in any way that plays to Beijing’s advantage.

Zhao used a doctored photo of an Australian soldier to support a statement that Beijing was ‘shocked’ by the alleged unlawful killings of Afghans by Australian special forces personnel. And he then called on our government, which of course knows of the alleged abuses, to hold Australian officials (soldiers) to account.

The effect of Zhao’s intervention is likely to be something he and his audience in Beijing, the senior Chinese Communist Party leadership, could have predicted, but seem not to have: it will simply cause more governments, more civil-society organisations and more citizens in multiple countries to inquire into the mass-scale abuses that Beijing’s authorities are committing every day in Xinjiang and now in Hong Kong.

So, Zhao’s actions will only further harm China’s already collapsing soft power internationally and make others question the assumptions they have made about engaging economically and politically with the Chinese state. That’s all bad news for Beijing.

There’s some good news for Zhao, though. What he’s called for—accountability of Australian officials who have committed crimes or abuses—is exactly what the Australian government is already in the process of doing. Let’s remind ourselves why.

The world knows about the alleged unlawful killings of 39 Afghans because of a forensic inquiry conducted by Australian authorities, whose findings were publicly released.

In contrast, the world knows about the more than 1 million Uyghurs in detention camps in China only through first-hand accounts of escapees, leaked Chinese government documents, and analysis of satellite imagery.

The Australia government’s response to allegations of special forces misconduct was to initiate a  comprehensive, four-and-a-half-year-long investigation, and to foreshadow criminal charges for Australian personnel.

Beijing’s response to allegations of mass-scale abuses of its Uyghur citizens has been denial and misrepresentation.

At first, Chinese government officials said there were no camps. When it became impossible to sustain that argument, they shifted to their current explanation that the mass detention camps are ‘vocational education’ centres. This is simply untrue.

Zhao is absolutely right in saying that governments must be accountable for abuses committed by their officials.

The key question he has not answered (and almost certainly won’t and can’t if he’s to survive in his role) is, when will Beijing take responsibility for its acts in Xinjiang and Hong Kong with a level of accountability approaching that Australia is taking for the abuses in Afghanistan?

It seems to make no sense for Beijing to call attention to its own appalling human rights behaviour, so why is its foreign ministry doing so?

The first reason is that this performance is not mainly for the international community; it’s another case of Chinese diplomats engaging in aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy to demonstrate to Xi Jinping that they are doing what he wants—showing strength and engaging in China’s ‘struggle’ with the rest of the world. Zhao is performing for the members of the CCP’s politburo and probably for other senior party members in Beijing who control careers and success for people like him.

The second reason is based on a miscalculation: Beijing seems to assess that bullying and intimidating the Australian government and using trade as a weapon are the best ways to undo Australian decisions that go against Beijing’s interests.

It should be getting obvious to Beijing that this is an error, and that any further effort along these lines will only harden Australian public opinion and support the analysis that underpinned Australian decisions on foreign interference, foreign investment and digital technology. It will also make other governments and policymakers much more interested in Australia’s decision-making, as we have seen on 5G technology.

Maybe even more importantly, it will reinforce a growing move by Australian businesses to diversify away from all-in bets on the Chinese market, as we heard so clearly in the case of Treasury Wine Estates this week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was right in politely but clearly calling on the Chinese government to apologise for and remove Zhao’s tweet about the alleged unlawful killings by Australians in Afghanistan.

That won’t happen, but Morrison’s clear response will help others understand that the issues here are all in Beijing, not Canberra. He’s also telling Beijing that Australia has respect for itself and for the soldiers who fight in our name.

In the medium and long terms, as Australian businesses respond to the growing risk in the closing China market, and as Beijing’s bullying scores it more own goals internationally, Morrison’s stance will create what Beijing says it wants most: a foundation for a mutually respectful relationship.

Such a relationship will be possible only if, along with retaining our self-respect, we reduce the economic leverage Beijing has over us. Selling 20% of our annual lobster catch to Chinese consumers, instead of the 90% we do now, would be an example of that sensible future. Beijing is doing what it can to help this trade rebalance happen.