The doctored image posted by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (Image: Supplied)

It was seven days ago that Prime Minister Scott Morrison snapped, or seemed to, over that now-infamous doctored tweet by a Chinese official.

The image of a knife-wielding Digger responded to accusations of atrocities committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

All these days on, despite a torrent of analysis, we are none the wiser on a central question: was this a genuine reaction from Morrison? Or was it mere confected outrage?

That we cannot readily answer that question is one of the takeouts of this episode when it comes to Australia’s most marketing-driven prime minister, bar none.

There’s a related question which is equally knotty: was it a smart thing to do? 

Analysis produced since the outburst suggests that, on closer inspection, Morrison might have been suckered into an overreaction by China. Commentary along these lines itself risks perpetrating the potentially false narrative of a wily China, the all-knowing and all-powerful puppeteer.

Let’s look at the context.

Having returned from Japan (an enemy of China) when he made the statement, Morrison was nearing the end of a 14-day lockdown in The Lodge. His quarantine periods became a kind of PR bender, fuelled by the presence of his staff photographer also in isolation with the PM and lapped up by the media.

Consider too that Morrison is a PM who has perhaps sought more than any other to place the Australian military on its own pedestal. Veterans, he once mused, should have priority when boarding a flight. They should be acknowledged along with Indigenous Australians at official functions. They are patriots one and all.

And then there was the brewing backlash to the Brereton report, with questions raised over whether or not untested allegations of special forces’ brutality to two 14-year-old Afghans should have been included in the official information release.

It formed a heady brew for a prime minister in the middle of a multi-dimensional game with China.

On the home front, getting stuck into China is an electoral winner. Opinion polls have demonstrated that Australian voters have a poor opinion of China and its growing belligerence. The Afghan tweet ticked all those boxes. A power which once came bearing smiles and pandas and dance troupes now appears to have revealed its true self: intolerant of dissent and prepared to crack down hard via tariffs on exports and, now, an overt public attack on “Australian values”. 

Morrison might also be entitled to a genuine rage at the idea that China should lecture Australia — or anyone for that matter — on human rights. It is, after all, a little like Tony Abbott handing out lessons on feminism.

And then there’s the continuing unravelling of the trade relationship and the powerful industries — frequently Coalition-backing — all imperiled by further hostility. Prior to Morrison’s outburst the loss of trade was up to around the $20 billion mark. 

Within 45 minutes of the post, Morrison pounced, a red-faced mix of resentment, defensiveness and (perhaps) poll-driven righteousness. 

In that instant did it matter that the Chinese official who tweeted out the offending image was relatively junior? Or that Morrison might have walked into a trap? 

Certainly the nuances and calibrations of Chinese diplomacy will not matter to the voters, a third of whom believe that Chinese people are primarily responsible for the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival and spread in Australia, according to an Essential poll in August.

Nor did it matter to other governments who now see China as a threat they must confront. New Zealand, France and the United States are among those to offer immediate backing. 

In Australia the reaction from the local Chinese community will be split between those who’ve always despised the Chinese Communist Party and those who don’t and who draw their information direct from Chinese online sources. No wonder Morrison, with a view to electoral reaction, attempted to speak to them directly via WeChat. And, equally, no wonder he was blocked by China, seeking to control Chinese community reaction. 

Now that the analysts have got to work, a reassessment of Morrison’s reaction has been underway. A consensus is forming from the Sino-diplomatic complex that Morrison has acted rashly and counter to Australia’s long-term interests. 

Asia specialist and former Fairfax foreign editor Hamish McDonald has decried the blunt reaction of Morrison, saying the PM took the bait from China in a move which also took attention away from the bedrock issue of mounting trade restrictions imposed by China. The reaction, if any, should have come from a lower official — not Australia’s top asset.

Even the Nine newspapers’ Peter Hartcher, who is reliably bellicose in support of government opposition to China’s emerging power, said that Morrison had walked into a trap and had over-reacted to a provocation which should have been ignored.

Predictably, perhaps, the parsing of Morrison’s reaction has fallen into two clearly defined camps. 

One side, best represented by the government-backed Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), argues that Australia has to call out and confront China while developing new trade relationships in Asia and elsewhere.

The other side argues that Australia needs to accept the reality of Chinese power and conduct quiet diplomacy to further Australia’s economic interests.

This split holds a mirror up to Australia’s media and public commentary class, with popular media and generalists more likely to back the view of Morrison not as a bull in a China shop but as the proud defender of Aussie values. 

That’s not a bad outcome for a populist politician — even if we still don’t know how calculated, genuine or policy-smart his reaction has been.

It is the art of the inscrutable marketer.