China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has accused Australia of spreading disinformation and manipulating the coronavirus pandemic for its own gain.
The comments come in response to Foreign Minister Marise Payne citing a report that claimed Russia and China had been using social media to spread disinformation online.
Asked about Senator Payne’s comments on Wednesday (local time), Mr Zhao hit back with an accusation of his own — that Australia was doing the very thing it had, in his view, accused China of.
“The UN and WHO have called on countries to strengthen solidarity and cooperation to counter all sorts of disinformation.
“We hope the Australian official [Senator Payne] will act responsibly in a just and objective manner, stop political manipulation of the pandemic and contribute to the global combat against the pandemic.”
Senator Payne had said in a Tuesday night speech that it was troubling that some countries were “using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models.”
She said the report found countries and actors sought to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.
She also noted Twitter disclosed more than 32,000 accounts as state-linked information operations, which the company attributed to Russia, China and Turkey.
The stoush over disinformation is just the latest in an ongoing spat between Australia and its largest trade partner.
The political battle began after Senator Payne called for a global investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak that began in the city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province.
It then resulted in China putting a crippling tax on Australian barley imports, which was followed by a ban on four Australian abattoirs, damaging beef exports.
China then warned its citizens not to travel to Australia, citing alleged racist attacks on Chinese people since the pandemic began, a move Senator Payne described as “disinformation”.
Asked about Senator Payne’s comments, Mr Zhao again went on the attack, suggesting the foreign minister was “politicising the pandemic”.
“We are talking about the plain fact of existing discrimination and violence in Australia, but this Australian official labelled it as “disinformation”. Then may I ask what about the rights and interests and feelings of those victims?” he said.
“To be candid, we don’t think it is ‘in Australia’s best long-term interests’ when certain people, acting out of their own political interests, choose to turn away from facts and engage in politicising the pandemic and sabotaging relevant international cooperation.”