The Chinese official who triggered an outpouring of anger from the Morrison government over a provocative image of an Australian soldier has fronted media for the first time since sharing his now infamous tweet.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian faced reporters at the department’s daily press conference on Wednesday, nine days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison branded his tweet, which depicted the soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child, “truly repugnant”.
Mr Zhao has developed a reputation as an antagonist amid a more aggressive approach from Beijing in its international affairs. He has been a regular critic of Australia amid the deteriorating China-Australia relations in his official capacity.
While there was no mention of the tweet or the ensuing diplomatic spat, Mr Zhao once again criticised Australia when pressed on the federal government’s decision to pass legislation allowing it to veto state dealings with foreign entities.
One such dealing that has come under the spotlight is Victoria’s agreement to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Mr Zhao reiterated the deal would be beneficial to both parties and warned Canberra to make its decisions in a non-partisan manner.
“Instead of deliberately creating obstacles on normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia, and carrying out law enforcement activities in a selective and discriminatory way, the Australian side should do more things conducive to mutual trust and mutual benefit between China and Australia,” he said.
China ramps up aggressive approach on world stage
Mr Zhao remained silent in the wake of Mr Morrison’s comments however his decision to pin his tweet to the top of his Twitter feed was seen as a further act of provocation.
And while China's deputy head of mission to Australia Wang Xining denied Chinese state media was being controlled and “manipulated” by Beijing, Mr Zhao shared a wave of content from state-run The Global Times – a publication that has ramped up its attack on Australia in recent months.
Mr Morrison’s enraged response to Mr Zhao’s tweet featuring the work of patriotic Chinese artist Wuheqilin was not the first time Mr Zhao had triggered overseas governments.
Mr Zhao is one of a growing number of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats – a term deriving from two blockbuster Chinese movies of the same name where Chinese protagonists defend the interests of China around the world.
He has since developed an impressive following of 870,000 on Twitter – one of many platforms Beijing is keen to have a growing voice on to counter China’s critics.
Chinese FM said that Australia should feel "ashamed" over cruel murder of innocent Afghan civilians, rejecting Australian PM Scott Morrison's demand for apology from China over a tweet showing an Australian soldier murdering a child. https://t.co/bs2viLA2fi
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) November 30, 2020
Zhao Lijian branded a ‘racist disgrace’ in US
His provocative comments on Twitter comparing tensions in Xinjiang to race tensions in the US prompted Barack Obama’s former national security advisor Susan Rice to brand him a “racist disgrace”.
While Beijing has denied a shift to an aggressive form of diplomacy, sinologist Professor Dali Yang at the University of Chicago says there is clear support for such behaviour from officials.
“Overall, hardline stance and ability to have such influence on the global discourse means they clearly enjoy support within the Chinese leadership,” he told the Financial Times.
Over the weekend, China’s foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng refuted the term “wolf warrior”, telling a conference at Renmin University it was a ploy from the Western world to suppress China’s voice.
He said China was now fighting back against criticism with the consent of China’s president Xi Jinping.
“We must be determined to solve the problem of being scolded,” he said.
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