Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (Image: AP/Kyodo)

The first rule of dealing with internet trolls is to never get mad. Getting mad is a sign you’ve been owned. And in the brave new world of “shitpost diplomacy”, Australia has been comprehensively owned.

As Crikey has previously explained, a shitpost generally refers to a kind of irony-dense, often edgy tongue-in-cheek tweet or meme designed to inspire a knowing chuckle, or howls of outrage, especially among those who aren’t “extremely online”.

Shitposting was exactly what Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry apparatchik, was doing with his tweet that gloated over the Brereton report and showed a Digger cutting an Afghan child’s throat.

The post had plenty of irony — China having a crack at the Special Air Service’s behaviour in Afghanistan in spite of its own appalling human rights record. It also contained a kernel of truth — lest we forget, amid all the sabre-rattling, our troops are in fact accused of slitting the throats of Afghan children — it’s all there on page 120 of the Brereton report.

But what puts this squarely in the realm of shitposting was how it was so obviously designed to piss off Canberra. And it worked, drawing a full-blown display of defensive Team Australia hyperventilating from both sides of politics and the press gallery (they’re largely a United Front when it comes to China). 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the tweet “repugnant”, demanded an apology from Beijing, and called for Twitter to take down the post (a company spokesperson said the image had been marked as “sensitive media”).

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it was “the most egregious misinformation” she’d ever seen during her time in parliament. Reminder: the meme, while tasteless, reflected allegations spelled out in the Brereton report. 

Over in the Nine papers, columnist Peter Hartcher saying the tweet was “ISIS-level stuff”. The Oz reckons diplomatic relations with China are at a 50-year low. Over a tweet.

Shitposting is real

Perhaps a reason Australia’s political establishment lost its collective mind yesterday was because this seems to be such a rogue development in China’s diplomatic arsenal. But we shouldn’t be shocked.

In fact, the walls between internet low culture and the highest reaches of international politics have already been smashed — think of the Russian troll armies that pumped enough memes and disinformation into the veins of US political discourse to help turn an election. 

What’s different this time is that the shitpost comes from a verified account with a cushy position in China’s foreign ministry. But even that isn’t so novel. In fact Zhao has a long history pulling these kind of stunts. BuzzFeed News called him the “combative, bombastic, frankly Trumpy voice” of China on Twitter. He’s frequently tweeted about America’s human rights abuses in the Middle East and racial segregation when the issue of China’s own internment of the Uyghurs comes up, for example.

And we should expect a lot more of this too. In that BuzzFeed profile, Zhao clearly articulates his goal — use social media to push back against what he sees as false narratives about China, and point out the hypocrisy of its critics.

Shitpost diplomacy, it seems, is here to say.

Why China got what it wanted

So, given the tweet only widened the diplomatic rift between Australia and China, what’s the end game here?

Well, Zhao and China got what they wanted from the tweet, but not in a way that’s easy to quantify — this kind of shitpost, with its bad-faith whatabouttery, aims to muddy the waters and mangle the debate.

It’s like when MAGA-heads and the alt-right post about Joe Biden’s support for mass incarceration in the 1990s, or Obama’s drone strikes. It’s not because they necessarily care about racial justice or human rights (otherwise they wouldn’t support Trump!), it’s because by weaponising their opponents’ perceived hypocrisy, they can create a narrative where everyone is so awful that their own side’s awfulness no longer matters. 

China doesn’t really care about human rights (otherwise it wouldn’t put Uyghurs in concentration camps!) but it does care about baiting Australia right now — diplomatic barbs have ratcheted up all year. 

We love rightly pointing out how thin-skinned Beijing is about its human rights record. So when a random bureaucrat made an off-colour meme about our own humanitarian failings, we threw a tantrum and acted like those alleged war crimes weren’t as bad as the tweet about the war crimes.

By drawing such a hysterical, defensive response, it makes it harder for Australia to maintain the moral high-ground on this stuff. It doesn’t matter that China’s behaviour is so much worse, because the tweet is about debasing the discourse, sowing moral confusion and furnishing a narrative where we’re both thin-skinned human rights abusers.

Strap in. There will be many more posts like this to come. The next cold wars are already being fought on the battlefields of Twitter and TikTok.

How do we win? Don’t be mad.