After India, China’s relationship has deteriorated with another country as Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party continues its expansionist desires. China’s relationship with Australia is currently at an all-time low.
The relationship between the two countries took a turn for the worst when a spokesperson of the Chinese government tweeted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The tweet was accompanied by the caption stating that Australia should be ashamed of the alleged actions of its soldiers.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison within a few hours responded to the tweet and demanded an immediate apology from the Chinese government for the tweet which he described as ‘repugnant’. Even France criticized the tweet by the Chinese government, stating that it was motivated by prejudice.
But the Chinese government did not back down and further criticized Australia for allegedly treating its ‘goodwill with evil’. Such a series of back-and-forth actions have been described by the Chinese media as the lowest point in the relationship between the two countries.
Australian lawmakers have long been wary of China’s aggressive foreign policy and its rapid military modernization. These fears came to a head in 2017 when Australia banned foreign political donations after receiving disturbing reports of Chinese attempts to influence and disrupt the political process in Australia.
Following this incident, Australia also became the first country to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from installing its 5G network in the country after it was discovered that the tech giant installed back doors in the network which would allow the company and the Chinese government to access personnel and private user data.
This ban on Huawei was followed by the discontinuation of at least ten suspicious Chinese investment deals in several sectors of Australia. Recently, the Australian government asked for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 virus which first appeared in Wuhan.
China has responded to Australia’s actions by trying to use its economic might to force Australia to back down. China has curbed Australian beef imports as well as levying heavy tariffs on Australian barely. Even Australian wine was severely affected by Chinese tariffs and the Chinese government is also expected to block further imports of sugar, lobster, coal, and copper.
In this ongoing spat between Australia and China, the Chinese government has desperately tried to change the narrative to its advantage. As per a report by the Sydney Morning Herald, China covertly controls several popular Chinese-language media sources in Australia. The report also added that the federal government has been provided with evidence by Australia’s peak intelligence agency claiming that the control over Chinese-media sources is a part of China’s foreign interference and influence operations meant to advance China’s strategic interests.
The briefings provided to the Australian federal government also highlighted that multiple WeChat news sites in Australia were controlled, censored, and even directly operated by the CCP. After Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted the doctored image, Australian PM Scott Morrison even took to WeChat to criticize the tweet calling it a false image and praise the Chinese community in Australia but as per a Reuters report, the Australian PM’s message on WeChat was blocked by China.
Chinese attempts at shifting the blame and changing narratives to fit their own political agenda are not something that is new. Beijing has also for months tried to change the narrative pertaining to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese government’s mishandling and deliberate attempts to hide critical information regarding it that led the virus to spread across the globe.
As per reports, the United States on December 2, stated that the special United Nations General Assembly session organized on the COVID-19 outbreak on December 3, was just a stage for China to peddle its propaganda and shift blame away from itself. The US added that the special session had been ‘pre-engineered’ to serve China’s purposes. The fact that questions during this session in the UN will be restricted lends credibility to US accusations that the session is merely meant for spreading Chinese propaganda.
Furthering the spat between Australia and China with regards to the doctored image of the Australian soldier, China mouthpiece Global Times hit back at criticism from Australian PM Scott Morrison by claiming he acted ‘radically’. The report in the Global Times went as far as insulting the Australian PM by stating that he had an ‘unhealthy mindset’.
One of China’s most used rhetoric tools is to deflect any criticism or blame upon it by accusing its opponents of having a ‘Cold War mindset’. When Chinese telecom giant Huawei came under criticism, it was proclaimed by Chinese proxies to have become a victim of ‘high-tech McCarthyism’ (McCarthyism is another term for Cold War mindset).
American freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea has been described by Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom as ‘gunboat diplomacy motivated by a Cold War mentality’. China’s abysmal human rights record is contested by the CCP, they state that China has once again become a victim to that form of biased thinking.
In a recent book titled ‘Hidden Hand: How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World’, authored by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohiberg exposed the modus operandi and nuanced tactics used by the CCP for influence operations in Australia. The authors argue that China’s use of ‘Cold War mindset’ as a way of defence is truly ironic as the CCP leadership itself is heavily influenced by a Cold War mentality.
Such thinking reached new heights under the regime of Xi Jinping. Under him, the CCP has categorically rejected the concepts of constitutional democracy and universal human rights. Not only that, but the CCP has also begun attempts to eradicate ideas that it believes would threaten its power.
The authors empirically argue that China is currently following a philosophy often attributed to Joseph Stalin – we would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?” Anne-Marie Brady in her work ‘Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and thought work in contemporary China’ showed that the CCP massively began to expand its propaganda and ideological work after massive student protests in Tiananmen Square which were brutally suppressed using violence, and the fall of the Berlin Wall which triggered the decline of the Soviet bloc. These two major shocks forced the CCP to focus on the concept of ‘ideological security’ as an integral and indispensable part of the regime security.
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) has been rapidly expanding its influence in Australia through covert operations in Australian academia, media and civil society. Australian organisations like ‘Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China’ have been facing backlash in the country for carrying out covert operations for China.
It has also come to light that the recently UFWD has also started to exploit and use social media influences, independent professionals – notably lawyers, managers in foreign-funded businesses, overseas Chinese, and young Chinese studying abroad, besides a long list of groups and communities. It has also managed to successfully marginalise sensitive issues like Taiwan among certain Australian communities.
In recent years, China has also made serious attempts to enter the global media landscape. The CCP wishes to use media as another of its strategies for shifting international discourse away from narratives that are unflattering or critical of CCP and China. In 2016, Xi Jinping delivered a speech wherein he emphasized the need for a ‘flagship media with strong international influence’. Some estimates state that China has spent over $10 billion annually in an attempt to create a flagship media, as envisioned by China.
While overt Chinese propaganda and heavy-handed pieces can often be ignored by the layman, there are also many subtle elements of CCP’s strategy to control the global discourse. Chinese outlets have one major advantage, they have the financial backing of the Chinese state or via state proxies, on the other hand, western media outlets face severe financial restrictions. Over the year’s Chinese media with the help of Western Media specialists have expanded massively but have also been able to become more cunning in terms of their content aimed at foreign audiences.
China’s continued spat with Australia regarding alleged abuses showcases China’s double standards when it comes to the protection of human rights. China routinely rejects the concept of human rights and even subjects its own people, like ethnic minorities in Xinjiang to gross injustices like arbitrary detentions and mass forced sterilisations.
Despite China’s own dismal track record when it comes to human rights, China continues to criticise other nations and attempts to change the narrative in its favour. One of the three main pillars that ensure the CCP’s iron grip over China is propaganda. This tool is not only used against its own people but is oftentimes also exported through various means to the outside world since the narrative benefits the Chinese government.