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Australia seeks conciliation with China after dispute over graphic tweet

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Tokyo last month
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Tokyo in November.
(Kiyoshi Ota / Pool photo)

A war of words between Australia and China over a graphic tweet seemed to cool Thursday as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison struck a much more conciliatory tone.

Morrison had expressed indignation and anger earlier this week at the tweet by a Chinese official that showed a fake image of a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat. The post took aim at alleged unlawful killings and abuses by Australian soldiers during the conflict in Afghanistan, which Australia is investigating.

Morrison’s more conciliatory approach Thursday came even after he was thwarted in broadcasting his views directly to the Chinese public over WeChat after the Chinese messaging app deleted his post on the grounds that it could distort historical events and confuse the public.

China has rejected Morrison’s complaints, but its foreign ministry Thursday declined to comment further on the controversy. Spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters at a daily briefing that WeChat’s management had their “own rules and regulations, and they have the right to handle business concerning WeChat according to their own rules.”

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Morrison called the Chinese official’s tweet and its fake image “truly repugnant” and “deeply offensive” and demanded an apology from China. But China did not back down, saying that Australia should be the one examining its actions.

On Thursday, Morrison told reporters in Canberra, the Australian capital, that his aim was for the two countries to have a “happy coexistence.”

Australia says it doesn’t want a trade war with China, which is angry at Australia’s push for an investigation into its handling of the coronavirus.

“My position and my government’s position is to seek constructive engagement,” he said. “The relationship with China is a mutually beneficial one. It supports both our countries; it is good for both of our countries.”

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China is Australia’s largest trading partner.

Morrison said Australia had made its views very clear on both the tweet and the WeChat message.

WeChat is ubiquitous in China and is used for everything from getting news to making electronic payments. The company is held responsible for ensuring content doesn’t attract negative attention, and censorship is relatively common.

An Australian think tank says China is expanding secret detention centers in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are targeted in a forced assimilation campaign.

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Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he was disappointed about both the tweet and the deleted post.

“What the prime minister did in his WeChat message before it was disappointingly deleted was he made it very clear Australia is proud of its servicemen and women who wear the uniform,” Frydenberg said.

The rift between the two nations has grown since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. China has since imposed tariffs and other restrictions on a number of Australian exports.


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