China's bullying of Australia is both scary and ridiculous

China, which aspires to shove aside the United States and become the world's hegemon, is very angry at Australia for its insistence on uncovering the truth about the origins of the Wuhan virus.  The Chinese are attacking Australia with substantive economic warfare, apparently believing that a nation with about one fiftieth of its population and just over a tenth of its GDP, dependent on exports of raw materials and agricultural products, can be bullied.  But China also has descended to contemptible attacks on social media from its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian (dubbed China's "troll" in 2019 by Ben Smith, then of BuzzFeed), featuring an outrageously fake doctored photograph of an Aussie soldier in Afghanistan slitting the throat of a child.


Twitter screen grab.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology for the false image, which he called "repugnant," and China refused, playing too-clever-by-half word games ("Afghan lives matter"):

[A] Chinese government representative excoriated Australia for its troops' alleged brutality in Afghanistan.

"The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague's tweet," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a briefing Monday. "Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!"

Both nations announced boycotts and punitive tariffs on each other, with Australian wines, which enjoy the largest market share in China, particularly vulnerable to the tariffs of up to 212 percent.  With 18% of its imports coming from China and an estimated 6% decline in GNP ahead if the boycott continues, Australian economic pessimism abounds.

But for now, the escalation is primarily rhetorical, and in this battlefield, China has a weak hand, and it shows.  China has just blocked P.M. Morrison from WeChat, the dominant social media platform there, to keep his side of the story from its own people and is doubling down, defending its fake photo as "freedom of speech" and falsely claiming it was a caricature or cartoon.  From Chinese Communist Party–dominated Global Times:

A cartoon is cartoon. It is not a photo. So how can it be "faked" as Morrison and some Australian outlets claim? Cartoon has characteristics that exaggerate some points with an emphasis on artistic expression and visual shock. This is very common around the world. This is far from fabricating facts. (snip)

The country that owes an apology is Australia — to China. And to Afghanistan first and foremost for slaughtering their innocent people. 

And the Chinese are publishing more visual arts attacks on Australia:

Has there ever been a more ridiculous pose than China masquerading as a defender of free speech?  Or a critic of military brutality?  I wonder what the Uighurs have to say about it!

The problem is far from Australia's alone.  Or even Australia's and India's alone, for India also is boycotting China, while a military confrontation with China over their border in the Himalayas continues.

China, with the world's largest population and a history as a continuous political entity longer than any other nation, has a legitimate claim on being recognized as a leading nation of the world.  I yield to no one in my respect and admiration for Chinese culture and the Chinese people.  But China's aspirations to replace the U.S. as the world's hegemon is downright scary, for two reasons:

- China is a corrupt dictatorship whose rulers enrich themselves and oppress their domestic opponents ruthlessly and have no respect for any human rights.

- China's history contains no models consistent with a world system composed of nations dealing with each other as sovereign equals.  Until the arrival of Westerners in the 1500s, China dominated its region and conducted trade and other international relations as a tributary system, with vassal states acknowledging China's commanding superiority.  And it got even worse when Western nations, armed with cannons and other superior military technology, horribly abused China, fostering chaos and mass opium addiction and basically disintegrating the Chinese nation.  Deep resentment, and desire for revenge, would be completely understandable, but it would not be acceptable to anyone outside China.

If China continues to move in the direction of bullying smaller, weaker nations, it is setting the stage for a catastrophic phase of world history.  It may be able to buy or intimidate some nations or interests in those nations (cough! Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street) into feigning acceptance of Chinese dominance, but those who cave in will find that living under a Chinese thumb is not comfortable.  Sooner or later, even if China succeeds, the rest of the world will not willingly accept Chinese dominance.

China's own people are the best hope to avoid a dystopian world conflict.  They deserve a government worthy of their magnificent history and culture.  But they face the most sophisticated high-tech system of surveillance and information control in history.  It is far from clear where this all is heading.

Hat tip: John McMahon.