China Media Turns Fire on Jacinda Ardern's New Zealand Over Australia Feud

China's state-controlled media took a swipe at New Zealand on Tuesday, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voiced support for Australia in its latest row with China over a hawkish diplomat's controversial tweet.

Communist Party newspaper Global Times noted that the PM's criticism of Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian's tweet was "restrained"—likely due to political considerations, including China's roles as New Zealand's largest trading partner.

The newspaper's views, which are best described by the government's recent "Wolf Warrior" approach to diplomacy, nonetheless lashed out at Wellington in an editorial titled: "Kiwis bleat like Aussie sheep but don't condemn Afghan killings."

Zhao's tweet included a doctored image depicting an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a young Afghan goatherd. It has been liked 60,000 times on Twitter since going live on Monday.

"Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable," Zhao wrote in reference to last month's Brereton Report, which the Australian Defence Force made public following a four-year investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces personnel during the war in Afghanistan.

Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable.

— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 30, 2020

The inquiry by Major General Paul Brereton found that elite Australian troops had unlawfully killed at least 39 prisoners, farmers and civilians between 2005 and 2016. It recommended further investigations into 19 special forces members.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has been conducting public diplomacy on Twitter—a website banned in mainland China since 2009—latched on to the findings, its efforts culminating in Zhao's contentious tweet.

Australian PM Scott Morrison called the image "repugnant" and demanded an apology from China, as well as the post's removal from Twitter.

Ardern told reporters that the Chinese official's tweet was "not factually correct," adding that she had raised concerns with Chinese authorities, presumably referring to Beijing's representatives in New Zealand.

Despite an open admission by the artist himself that the illustration was Photoshopped—he claimed, however, it was created "based on facts"—China has rejected repeated opportunities to retract Zhao's tweet this week, accusing Morrison of trying to "divert attention" away from the ADF report.

Global Times described Prime Minister Ardern as a "hypocrite" and having "double standards" for condemning the tweet while trying to safeguard New Zealand-China relations.

"This is also part of the so-called Western values— the freedom to be hypocrites," the state-owned tabloid wrote.

Since Zhao's tweet, which he pinned to the top of his timeline, Chinese diplomats have been on the offensive against any government speaking in support of Canberra, which saw its ties with China reach a new low.

Beijing has accused Morrison of doing the U.S.' bidding. In April, the PM called for an independent investigation into the source of the coronavirus outbreak, leading to China's punitive blockage of Australian beef and barley imports.

Last month, import duties of up to 200 percent were levied on Australian-made wines, while its lobster and coal exports are also expected to suffer under the strict Chinese measures.

New Zealand Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Wellington on December 1, 2020, that her government had raised concerns with Chinese authorities about Zhao Lijian's "unfactual" tweet. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images