China is trolling Australia over its Olympics boycott. Experts say this has backfired

Chinese state media have taunted Australia with political cartoons for joining a US-led diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping Source: Getty Images

Chinese state media have savaged Australia with a series of political cartoons that suggest the country is blindly following the United States in boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games over human rights abuses.

But experts say rather than impacting Australia’s approach, the audacious images will only serve to draw more attention to the reasons for the boycott.

One cartoon published by the Global Times showed Prime Minister Scott Morrison holding the cape of a man dressed in the colours of the United States, with the caption referring to Australia as the “No.1 lackey”.

Another cartoon published by the state media outlet depicted a kangaroo floating into a red sky while clinging onto a balloon embellished with the US flag.

Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence, strategy and national security program, Michael Shoebridge, believes the Global Times is trying to perpetuate a narrative that Australia is acting on behalf of the United States.

“As one of China’s foreign ministers famously said, ‘we are a big country and you are a small country and you should do what we say’,” Mr Shoebridge told SBS News.

“When Beijing looks out at the world, it sees itself and the US and then everybody else.”

Mr Morrison said on Wednesday that Australia will not send officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, joining a US diplomatic boycott that was announced on Monday.

He said Australia would boycott the Games as it had struggled to reopen diplomatic channels with China to discuss alleged human rights abuses of the Uyghur population in the region of Xinjiang.

“Australian government officials [will], therefore, not be going to China for those games. Australian athletes will, though,” he told reporters.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, labelled the move a "public stunt" which would have "no impact on Beijing's success in hosting the Winter Olympics."

Mr Wang also said no Australian government officials had been invited to the Games and "no one cares whether they come or not."

But on Thursday, Mr Wang said countries who had joined the boycott were using "the Olympics platform for political manipulation", and they would "pay the price for their mistaken acts."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference. Source: AAP

Mr Shoebridge said how China is relating to Australia is “flavouring” many of its international relationships.

“This is not to Beijing's advantage, and yet, they can't seem to help themselves,” he said.

“By attempting to ridicule, they actually draw attention to Australia … and the reasoning for various Australian government decisions on China over the last five years.

“You can argue the stridency and anger in the cartoons and attempted mockery only heightens interest in Australian-China policy.”

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, urged Australians not to take the cartoons published by Chinese state media too seriously.

“From Australia’s perspective, I think it’s important that we don’t take the bait. That is the Global Times’ whole business model, to sort of rile up overseas audiences,” Professor Laurenceson told SBS News.

“There's a separate question then to what extent does Australia reflect on its own interests and contrast those with American interests, but that's a domestic debate we should be having,” he said.

“It shouldn't be prompted by whatever the Global Times is saying.”

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he chairs the ASEAN-China Special Summit to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations via video link from Beijing, China on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he chairs the ASEAN-China Special Summit to commemorate the 30th Anniversary. Source: AP/ Xinhua Huang Jingwen

The power of political imagery in China

Mr Shoebridge said that due to China’s system of censorship, political imagery is often more powerful within mainland China when used to sidestep censors than when cartoons are produced by Chinese state media for overseas audiences.

In 2018, China banned a Winnie the Pooh film after memes likening Chinese President Xi Jinping to the honey-loving bear spread on social media.

“You can see how powerful images are inside China by the anxious way that Chinese state censors deal with those,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“An image of a breaking egg wouldn't have much meaning outside China, but inside mainland China, the image would be understood by mainland Chinese citizens as referring to a tennis player Peng Shuai being … silenced for raising sexual abuse allegations against a powerful former member of the Chinese politburo.

“Because when she made the allegation she said… ‘Even if I’m an egg throwing myself at a rock … I will speak the truth of us’.”

But political imagery aside, there are genuine fears that Australia’s boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics may further strain the already fragile China-Australia relationship.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Source: Getty

The fallout between Australia-China relations

Announcing the boycott of the Beijing Games, Mr Morrison said: “Australia will not step back from the strong position we have in standing up for Australia’s interests”.

But Professor Laurenceson believes Australia’s boycott was utterly “pointless” and “unwise”.

“Clearly, having a diplomatic boycott is going to have absolutely no positive impact on human rights in China,” he said.

“So the argument is sort of that it means we're not complicit. And my response would be that we know the athletes are going.

“So I'm just struggling to see the point.”

Relations between the two nations have soured since the Australian government banned Huawei Technologies from its 5G broadband network and called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Beijing has rolled out tariffs and other trade actions against Australian export sectors including barley, wine, seafood and coal.

China has also blocked ministerial-level talks with Australia for the past year.

“Australia is the only country in the world, with one exception of Lithuania, that is experiencing the same degree of trade disruption,” Professor Laurenceson said.

Morrison Xi Jinping
The Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison and the President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping Source: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi/Mick Tsikas

Professor Laurenceson said the downturn in the relationship is “completely unsatisfactory” and stuck in a stalemate of sorts, with each country blaming the other for the fallout.

“To resolve the issues we've got to have a real meeting of the minds between the two leaders, and I see zero interest in that from Xi Jinping and Scott Morrison,” he said.

“Scott Morrison has said ‘we have done nothing to injure the relationship’, in other words, it’s all China's fault. China's not going to sit down and have a discussion on that basis.

“And of course, China's saying the same thing about us, which is completely wrong.”

6 min read
Published 10 December 2021 at 10:46am
By Eden Gillespie
Source: SBS News