Australia’s prime minister angrily denounced a “repugnant”, “outrageous” and “appalling” tweet from a top Chinese government spokesman Monday and demanded Beijing formally apologise.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao sparked the outrage when he posted a staged image of a man dressed as an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to an Afghan child’s throat.

Photo: Lijian Zhao screenshot.

Australian prosecutors are currently investigating 19 members of the country’s military in connection with alleged war crimes committed by special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

Morrison called the tweet — from an official Chinese government account — an “outrageous and disgusting slur” against the Australian armed forces and called on Twitter to take it down.

“It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever. The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison said of the tweet which had over 2,300 interactions within three hours. “It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”

Relations between Australia and China are in free fall. 

China has introduced a string of economic sanctions on Australian goods and state-controlled news outlets have repeatedly attacked Australia over a range of issues.

The ill-feeling appears to have been prompted by Canberra’s decision to push back on Beijing’s growing power in the region, to crack down on Chinese influence operations Down Under and to call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Zhao Lijian. Photo: China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Office, via Twitter.

“This sort of conduct is not conducive to any relationship,” Morrison said of the tweet. “That’s why I think it’s so important in our mutual interests that this egregious act be dealt with.”

The Chinese government spokesman had tweeted that he was “shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”

Meanwhile, Zhao appeared to block Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK on Twitter: “RTHK can’t see the tweet for some reason,” they tweeted on Monday.

The broadcaster has been under fire for months by the local authorities.

‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy

China, a one-party authoritarian state, has been accused of systemic, wide-ranging human rights violations for decades, most notably in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The post is the latest example of a new breed of aggressive Chinese government communications with foreign countries, which pundits have termed “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

It comes at a sensitive time, after the Australian government published a damning investigation into allegations its elite troops “unlawfully killed” 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan.

Government investigators have recommended 19 individuals be referred to the Australian Federal Police, compensation be paid to the families of victims and that the military carry out a slew of reforms.

Last week, the Australian army moved to discharge 13 soldiers for their role in the alleged atrocities and prosecutions are expected.

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy

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