Twitter-post garbage the clearest sign yet of desperation in Beijing
Australia is the country that's supposed to be feeling the pressure. But a look at the evidence reveals that the supposedly mighty regime of strongman Xi Jinping is the one feeling the strain. We now have three clear points of proof.
When China's ambassador to Australia openly threatened trade boycotts against Australian products in April, he revealed how worried the regime was. It was the moment that Xi removed the mask. For years his regime had been undermining Australia – through cyberattacks, political interference, demands that Chinese Australians support Beijing's political agenda – but always kept the smiling mask of friendship in place. Remember that Xi told Australia's Parliament in 2014 that the two countries should "be harmonious neighbours who stick together in both good times and bad times".
The Chinese Communist Party's functionaries always delivered their threats and pressure tactics in private. Xi imposed a freeze on top-level contacts with Australia two years ago. He ordered a go-slow on Australian thermal coal imports last year. But coercion had never been declared openly.
When the ambassador, Cheng Jingye, went public to issue his threats against Australian beef, wine, tourism and university revenues, we all saw the truth – there is no goodwill, only gangsterism.
It was a foolish tactic. Why blow the cover story and antagonise the Australian people? Because Xi was feeling the heat. He'd bungled the coronavirus, exposed China to global criticism and pitched the whole world into recession. Keep in mind that the party was deeply anxious about its grip on power even when the economy was booming. Harvard sinologist Ross Terrill has described it as "the irreducible problem of legitimation of a government that has never been elected". "It is a state that is oppressive, yet also afraid of its own people."
And because, despite China's size and might, Xi was feeling threatened by Australia's declarations of independence. Australia's Huawei ban was a world first. A score of other countries have followed. Australia's foreign interference legislation was another first. Other democracies are looking to it as a model.
Then Australia proposed an inquiry into the origins and handling of the coronavirus. Was it clumsily done by Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne? Yes. But the idea itself was so obviously common sense that more than 130 countries ultimately agreed to a modified plan for an inquiry. Including China.
From Australia's view, these were three actions to protect its interests. But from Beijing's, they were a threat. Xi's regime saw Australia as defiant. Worse, Australia's defiance was encouraging other countries. So the mask was off, the threats delivered.
The second proof point came two weeks ago. That's when a pair of Chinese embassy officials summoned a Nine reporter, Jonathan Kearsley, to a meeting and handed him their list of 14 specific demands on Australia. A Beijing spokesman called on Australia to "correct its errors". This is a marked change of tactics. China's officials almost always maintain maximum ambiguity when demanding redress. Vagueness is "part of their strategy", as Peter Varghese, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said earlier. "They leave it to you to guess. They let you go through the process of thinking, ‘What could we have possibly done to upset the Chinese?' They leave us to use our imaginations to think of what we might have done."
Monday November 30: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded to 'repugnant' China tweet, calling for it to be taken down.
This is the same principle – the self-criticism – that the party used to pressure victims during the Cultural Revolution. "The whole pattern of Chinese exercise of influence and control is to bring pre-emptive concessions to China so that they don't have to invade or do anything so unsubtle."
So why the sudden switch? The Chinese embassy saw that its tactics weren't working. Or couldn't wait any longer for them to take effect. Because of the pressure emanating from Beijing HQ, no doubt.
If that whiffed of panic, Monday's effort stank of it. It was juvenile propaganda. The fictitious picture of a Australian trooper holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child was in very poor taste by any standard. But it was published on the official Twitter account of China's Foreign Ministry.
China's spokesman, Zhao Lijian, added the comment: "Shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts and call for holding them accountable."
Zhao is one of China's so-called Wolf Warrior diplomats. He's obviously no diplomat. And as for wolf warrior, it's more like schlock monger.
We know that Donald Trump lowered the standards of conduct by great powers. But this garbage almost makes Trump look statesmanlike. This is ISIS-level stuff.
The key point is this: did Zhao or his masters stop to think of the effect that this might have? Is this really going to pressure Australia into yielding? It won't, of course. It's entirely counterproductive to Beijing's cause. It only exposes Xi's regime as thugs and grubs, rallies Australians around their government and hardens Australia's resolve. It's the clearest sign yet of desperation in Beijing.
Because Xi's regime knows the truth of this statement last week by Shi Yinhong, an academic and sometime foreign policy adviser to China's State Council, or cabinet. Because of China's conduct since the virus outbreak, "China is more isolated than it was before." And Xi doesn't know what to do about it.