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Issue #1945      14th December, 2020

Australia’s shameful deflection

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has deflected focus on the recent Australian war crimes in Afghanistan by demanding an apology from the Chinese government, after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian posted an artwork depicting the seriousness of the crimes, with an Australian soldier holding a knife to a child’s throat. The Chinese computer graphic artist, Fu Yu, is well-known in Chinese communities for his edgy, political art.

While the image may appear to be somewhat provocative, the reality is that the recently released Brereton report did in fact contain reports of SAS soldiers slitting the throats of two Afghani boys. This is amongst several disturbing instances of other civilian murders and torture by Australian soldiers. Understandably, the Australian public and the international community have been outraged by the findings, which only came to light thanks to ex-military whistleblower, David McBride. McBride has been charged with five national security-related offences, including theft of Commonwealth property and unlawfully disclosing a Commonwealth document, which carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment. So much for Australia’s civil liberties.

Rather than focusing on repairing relationships with the international community after these heinous acts were publicised, the Australian Prime Minister decided to take a swing right back at those condemning the acts. Not only did he demand an apology from the Chinese government (which is foolish considering the tweet was not even published by a higher-up official), but he also misrepresented the image as a “doctored” photograph – that is, a photograph made with the intention of deceiving the public.

There is no way in which anyone could assume for a moment that this is a “real” image, with the soldier and child placed on a graphically designed background of overlapping Australian and Afghani flags. However, the Australian mainstream media ran with this description, in reality, actually deceiving the public into thinking this was some attempt at China’s government to post a “fake” photograph to damage Australia’s reputation further.

Beijing has understandably refused to apologise, and the Afghanistan government has praised China for its response. China shares a border with Afghanistan, and as neighbouring countries, it is clear why China would not only be interested in its affairs but would have an unsurprising commitment to acknowledging poor treatment in global affairs.

China is surrounded by 400 US military bases, in countries bordering and beyond Afghanistan, forming a “noose,” as described by renowned Australian journalist John Pilger in his 2014 documentary The Coming War on China. In this film, Pilger describes how the media are instrumental in playing a leading role towards orchestrating war – a phenomenon which is currently being played out in real time.

By now, it is clear that the only people who could possibly buy this “doctored photograph” story are those who have an agenda to find more ways to condemn China, regardless of the reality of the situation. Anti-China rhetoric in Australia has ramped up massively in the past few years. Additionally, Australian commentators have often been dismissive and hostile towards China and Chinese officials, taking condescending pity on the Chinese people, painting them as little other than brainwashed and weak. This false sense of moral and mental superiority is not lost on the Chinese public, however, and many are starting to bite back. This art piece is one example.

It should not be overlooked that earlier this year when China’s COVID-19 cases were high, a newspaper in Denmark published an offensive image of the Chinese flag, with the stars exchanged for virus-shaped images. When the Chinese government voiced its concerns over this insensitive image, Australian newspapers, such as The Daily Telegraph, published opinion pieces in response to this, arguing the West was having to “tiptoe around China’s sensibilities.” This was quickly concluded in somewhat of a strawman argument of being something to do with the Chinese disposition of being “authoritarian” and lacking in “free speech.”

Many Australians have the impression that criticisms of internal Chinese affairs are fair and balanced but have little recognition of the reality that many of the so-called atrocities are in fact fabricated talking points coming out of right-wing US think tanks to damage China’s reputation in the West further.

The reality is that Fu Yu is a Chinese nationalist political cartoonist, and his art is strong, edgy and most importantly, has every right to be expressed. He has every right to express his condemnation of Australia’s defence policy, as Australians believe they do about issues arising out of China. It seems that Scott Morrison’s demand for an apology communicates that the only people who can in fact engage in “free speech” are in the West. As British journalist and scholar Martin Jakes put it on CGTN’s The Point, what Scott Morrison was really doing when demanding an apology was making it clear that Australia is above any criticism from China.

Even more disappointingly, it is not just the Coalition which condemns the posting of this image, but in fact both the ALP and the Greens. Labor leader Anthony Albanese commented that the image was “gratuitous, inflammatory and deeply offensive.” Greens leader Adam Bandt said the image was “contemptible,” and “photoshopping images does nothing to help the victims nor to hold to account those responsible for war crimes in Afghanistan.” Really, Mr Bandt?

It would seem that the current shift towards condemning China for the image is what actually moves the spotlight away from the war crimes. It is disappointing that none of the major parties in Australia are displaying a genuine interest in justice for the Afghani victims’ families, or in repairing the Australia-China relationship, even in the interests of the Australian working class. It seems when it comes to anything related to China, the Greens are much more aligned to the Liberal Party than the development of the global south.

Already several industries in Australia have been affected due to ongoing trade disputes between Australia and China, including barley, beef, wine, fisheries, and coal. Irrespective of this, these exports only make up less than one percent of national GDP. UNSW Professor of Practice in Economics, Tim Harcourt, commented that “[The Chinese government] are just trying to pick on Aussie small business and farmers to create political tension for the Coalition.” The reality is that exports to China from Australia have risen, due to the growth in iron-ore exports. The real fear is that China could limit trade of Australian iron-ore in the future as African nations become more competitive players. The trade spat and continuous condemnation of China does nothing to create or maintain prosperity for the Australian working class.

The focus on the call for an apology for this image shows a clear lack of responsibility taken by the Australian government, and only forges division between many nations, not only China, who view the response as childish and shameful. Australia has a long history of participation in US wars of aggression, and this time the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Political artwork has long been a cornerstone of reflecting on the zeitgeist, and Yu Hu’s work is no different. Was Picasso asked to apologise to the Nazis for his Guernica painting, which depicted the bombing of Guernica, a city in Spain attacked by the German and Italian fascists?

It is time for Australians to stand up and demand action being taken against continuous plunder and warfare in the name of US hegemony, and to seek an independent foreign policy. Australians should stand with the condemnation of these soldiers’ actions, and make a humble and honest assessment of the actions taken in Afghanistan. This is not on China – or the Chinese artist. Australia needs to make an apology – and the Afghani victims’ families should see justice. A genuine attempt to work towards this could at least start repairing Australia’s damaged reputation in global affairs.

Next article – An examination of the RCEP Agreement

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