China’s aggressive form of diplomacy is helping to create a new genre of patriotic political art—and one of the foremost proponents of Beijing’s “wolf warrior” brand of international relations is already making use of it.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry, stirred a diplomatic storm today (Nov. 30), after he tweeted a digital illustration depicting a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodstained knife to a child’s throat. “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!” the cartoon’s caption said. Alongside the cartoon, Zhao tweeted: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”
The image has deeply angered Australia, with prime minister Scott Morrison calling Zhao’s tweet “truly repugnant, deeply offensive, utterly outrageous” and calling on Beijing to formally apologize.
The tweet references the results of an inquiry completed by the Australian Defense Force this month, which found that some of its special forces took part in unlawful killings of 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan between 2009 to 2013. The department has sent notices of likely dismissal to some of the soldiers, while others could face prosecution.
Zhao’s tweeting of the disturbing cartoon is in line with his usual “wolf warrior” style—a term taken from a patriotic Chinese movie of the same name to describe Chinese diplomats’ increasingly confrontational approach. Earlier, he tweeted a conspiracy theory that sought to link the origin of the coronavirus, which was first detected at hospitals in the Chinese city of Wuhan, to the US military.
The post has pushed Sino-Australian relations, deeply strained after Canberra led calls for an international investigation to confirm the origins of the pandemic, to a new low. Australia has also accused China of interfering in Australian politics. For China’s part, it has harassed or detained Australian nationals working as journalists in the country, and imposed tariffs or unofficial bans on Australian products. In a document leaked this month, the Chinese embassy in Australia listed 14 grievances with its host.
Despite the controversy set off by the cartoon, its creator appears to be enjoying his newfound international fame. “I heard that Morrison is very upset about my work?” Wuheqilin, a Chinese computer graphic artist who claims to be behind the drawing shared by Zhao, said on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. He shared a screenshot of Zhao’s tweet in another post, and said “great job minister Zhao!”
With over 600,000 followers on Weibo, Wuheqilin is seen by many as the face of China’s patriotic, “wolf warrior” style artists. The artist started to gain traction after he posted his drawing A Pretender God that showed Hong Kong protesters—themselves known for creating a slew of political art—worshiping the Statue of Liberty, which is holding a gasoline bomb and keyboard, and appears before an Alien-esque like backdrop of tentacles devouring people. Wuheqilin said he hoped to “disclose the truth about how some Western forces deluded young people in Hong Kong,” with his painting, according to state-owned tabloid Global Times.
Most of Wuheqilin’s illustrations depict violent and disturbing scenes set in the West based on recent news incidents reported by the press in those countries. In one graphic, several citizens are shivering in the shadow of a giant man who looks like a police officer with the caption “Floyds, can you breathe?” which Wuheqilin uses to refer to the anti-racism protests stirred by the killing of George Floyd, a Black US citizen who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Over the past year, Chinese nationalists have often sought to point to racism in the US, and now alleged war crimes by Australia, to discredit pressure on China for its abuses of Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, where an estimated one million have been detained over the past several years.
An interview request from to the account didn’t immediately receive a response but in a video posted today, Wuheqilin said he hoped Australia would focus more on instilling discipline in its troops and less on “exerting pressure on the artwork created based on true incidents by an ordinary artist in a foreign country.”
Wuheqilin’s most well-known work, meanwhile, looks closer to home. The painting, Crown a Jester, shows a woman dressed as a clown kneeling and handing a bloody book pierced by a knife to a man who is holding a dog collar—a reference perhaps to an insult commonly given in China to people seen as collaborators or spies with the west. Many believe the image is aimed at 65-year-old Chinese author Fang Fang, who has faced an immense backlash in the country for her published diary recording life in Wuhan, where she lives, under lockdown. Some accused Fang of “handing the West a knife”—giving other countries fodder with which to sabotage China—with her descriptions of the difficulties faced by the city’s people.
Although he’s never explicitly said the work is about Fang, Wuheqilin told Chinese news portal Guancha in June that the painting was dedicated to “China’s most influential author.” Seen through this lens, when other countries contend with—and report openly on—their own flaws and rights abuses, it is “a knife” handed to Beijing, and one that the illustrator is making use of.
“In this special period when the West is using its power to dominate discourse to press [China] harder, I think we need more literary works that convey the will of our country and people,” he told Guancha.