A fabricated image of an Australian soldier harming an Afghan child, published on Twitter by a Chinese official, drew fierce backlash from Australia.
China has doubled down on the photo, and an Australian special forces soldier who completed multiple combat tours in Afghanistan told Insider that it was part of a "dirty game."
"It looks like they're trying to tarnish us for different transgressions," he told Insider. "This is one way they're trying to get back at us."
A fabricated image of an Australian soldier harming a child published on a Chinese official's Twitter account on Sunday has further divided China and Australia.
The doctored image depicted an Australian soldier slitting a child's throat with a knife, in front of a Australian flag and an Afghan flag in the form of an incomplete puzzle. A caption at the bottom of the photo reads, "Don't be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!"
The image was published on the Twitter account of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who wrote alongside it: "Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, and all for holding them accountable."
Zhao's tweet came as Australian Defence Force (ADF) released an investigation that recommended 19 current and former special forces soldiers be investigated over the deaths of 39 non-combatants in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013.
According to the report, junior enlisted soldiers were pressured to kill unarmed civilians, a process dubbed "blooding" that signified their first kill. The ADF also found evidence of weapons being placed near bodies to suggest civilians were combatants. Over 400 witnesses were interviewed during the four-year investigation.
Following Zhao's tweet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a stern rebuke, calling the picture "repugnant."
"It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever, the Chinese Government should be totally ashamed of this post," Morrison said, adding that his government had contacted its Chinese counterparts.
"There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia, but this is not how you deal with them," Morrison added.
Chinese-Australian relations have been further strained in recent years, partly due to Beijing's growing trade with and political influence in the region.
Australia was one of 39 countries that condemned China's "gross human rights violation" in Xinjiang, where 11 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs reside. Around a million Uyghurs are estimated to be detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, where evidence indicates many have been subjected to torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor.
China, which denies those allegations despite mounting evidence, doubled down on its doctored photo.
"The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague's tweet," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a press conference Monday. "Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!"
An Australian special forces soldier who completed multiple combat tours in Afghanistan described China's tweet as a "dirty game."
"It looks like they're trying to tarnish us for different transgressions," the soldier told Insider. "This is one way they're trying to get back at us. It's pretty unheard of to do it through official channels like this."
"I'm obviously offended, but I also know this is a game," the soldier added. "Even though I take offense, I also know it's countries trying to gain leverage over each other."
The offending tweet did not go unnoticed in the US, where Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida condemned the image and requested that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey take action.
"Twitter has had more than 36 hours to identify, investigate, and evaluate a tweet sent by Zhao Lijian ... that contains a doctored image that depicts a violent act that may in turn inspire other violent acts," Rubio said in a statement Tuesday.
"It defies belief that Twitter is unaware of the image, which falsely portrays an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of a young Afghan child, as Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison requested the image be taken down," Rubio added.
Zhao's tweet and picture remained online as of Tuesday afternoon.
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