China and Australia have seen tensions rise over the past year, after Canberra demanded an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic and China responded by escalating tariffs on Australian imports.
China has imposed tariffs on Australian barley, beef, wine, coal and other products, calling them a response to illegal Australian trade policies. Critics say Beijing’s actions are part of a broader diplomatic offensive against an important U.S. ally in the region, which is seen as a key member of an emerging security alliance including India and Japan.
The dispute with Canberra has also highlighted how Beijing now wages diplomatic offensives on social media, especially Twitter.
Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, but the government has embraced it as part of its foreign propaganda strategy, using the platform to amplify messages for foreign audiences.
A doctored tweet
Last month, a four-year Australian government probe recommended 19 former and current Australian soldiers face criminal investigations for killing 39 Afghans in 23 separate incidents during the course of the war.
On November 29, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian posted on Twitter a doctored photo depicting a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
The graphic post brought condemnation from Australian lawmakers and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who demanded China delete the image and formally apologize.
That demand was ignored and may have emboldened Chinese officials to do more. A new report by the Washington-based German Marshall Fund (GMF) shows that between November 27 and December 3, Australia was the third most mentioned country by Chinese government and state media Twitter accounts.
By way of comparison, Australia was only the 10th most referred to country over the previous two months. “China’s propaganda apparatus has focused intensely on Australia over the past couple of days,” the report said.
Zhao’s controversial tweet, with nearly 73,000 likes and 20,000 retweets, appears to have expanded his account following by 10%. Analysts say it also appears to have promoted more nationalist sentiment inside China, where state media have covered the dispute from Beijing’s perspective.
“This disinformation push in the Australia example has caused real blowback from international audiences,” said GMF China analyst Bryce Barros, co-author of the report. “I think this is a social media strategy that Chinese diplomats and state media journalists will continue to push to promote nationalism at home and abroad.”
By lashing out on Twitter and other platforms banned within China, Barros added, diplomats like Zhao are seeking to send the message to the international community, specifically the West, that China will not be pushed around.
An illusion of popular backing
While Zhao’s tweet seemed to find a huge audience, a deeper dive by researchers revealed that not all of those accounts retweeting the diplomat are active followers.
According to Tim Graham, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian National University, 8% of the accounts that retweeted Zhao’s post were created on November 30, a day after Zhao’s controversial post.
Here's a chart of accounts created in 2020 - 8% of these were *literally born yesterday* (n=212 accounts) pic.twitter.com/S60M5DSulI— Tim Graham (@Timothyjgraham) December 1, 2020
Albert Zhang, a research intern at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted that by the institute's calculation, 35% of the accounts that liked Zhao’s post had zero followers.
Looking at our sample of accounts liking the tweet, over 35% of accounts had zero followers pic.twitter.com/aVZsyNC6JM— AlbertYZhang (@AlbertYZhang) December 2, 2020
Researchers from GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy Initiative in October reported an increase in Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats on Twitter who emulate Russian disinformation tactics while adding several unique strategies.
“In this case, the spike in new Twitter accounts retweeting Zhao’s divisive content shows that Chinese diplomats have used ‘highly suspicious personas to create an illusion of popular backing,’ ” the researchers wrote.
Chinese officials appear to have publicly embraced the confrontational strategy. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed criticisms of “wolf warrior” diplomacy earlier this month, saying that “China's friend circle has not shrunk, but has become larger.”
Yet most Western experts disagree. A new 14-country Pew Research Center survey shows that public views of China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies, and unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year. Negative views of China increased most in Australia, where 81% now say they view the country unfavorably.
“The very aggressive Chinese 'wolf warrior' diplomacy in recent months was very badly received, and there is the increasing perception of China as a strategic rival,” Niclas Frederic Poitiers, a research fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told VOA.
Last week, European Union Ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis said the bloc would seek common ground with the United States to stand up to Beijing’s online bullying and intimidation, adding that China’s image in Europe was worsening and Beijing must do its part to change the “extremely worrying erosion of goodwill that had taken place over the past year.”