“He is uncivilised, he is arrogant, he will destroy the country’s reputation.”
“It is sign of the country that’s going to perish! They can not behave like Horton!”
These are some of the anti-Australian comments receiving thousands of likes on China’s social media platform Weibo in response to Olympic gold medallist Mack Horton’s referring to Chinese opponent Sun Yang as a “drug cheat”.
But there is no shortage of Government-backed support for such sentiment.
“In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilization,” thundered the Global Times, a jingoistic tabloid that China’s Communist Party runs.
“This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilized acts emanating from the country.”
The paper’s online edition also went so far as to question if the Australian media “is evil” to have widely disseminated Horton’s comments.
In the space of 48 hours, Australia has been the target of multiple hostile editorials and articles — some taking aim at Horton, but interestingly, others targeting Australia over its stance in the South China Sea and towards Chinese investment.
Comments come amid increasingly fraught ties
Make no mistake about it — regardless of other factors, labelling a popular Chinese Olympic star a “drug cheat” was destined to incur the nationalist wrath of both China’s Government and its citizens.
Online there is a chorus of support for Sun, with social media users forgiving his “accidental mistake” of taking a banned stimulant two years ago, and painting him as a victim.
But Horton’s comments have come in the midst of increasingly fraught ties over the South China Sea and Australia’s alliance with the United States.
Since an international court last month decimated the legal basis for much of China’s expansive territorial claims, Beijing has been on an all-out propaganda offensive seeking to smear the court and attack countries that expressed support for it.
That has included customary swipes at old rivals Japan and the United States.
But multiple state media editorials have lashed Australia, describing it as “a paper cat” that “won’t last”, and warning that it “must carefully talk and cautiously behave”.
Demands for an apology fits state-backed narrative
Online, many social media users have picked up on the existing tensions when discussing Horton.
The demand for an apology fits into an existing state-backed narrative of Australia deliberately hurting China’s interests.
While the saga at the Olympics will die down, a broader public campaign through China’s state-controlled news agencies will likely continue.
A recent article attempted to claim there was a split within the highest levels of the Australian Government on the South China Sea, while another noted Australian public opinion on contentious issues involving China is “complex”.
Whether the issue is Australian suspicion of investment from Chinese state-owned companies or military alliances, China, through its foreign ministry and state-controlled media, appears to now be regularly pushing a theme — that Australia is increasingly divided on aligning with the US against Chinese interests in the region.
With nationalistic rhetoric increasingly forming part of China’s efforts to exert pressure on this front, Mack Horton’s comments might not be the last time we see an outpouring of patriotic outrage.