Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s demand for Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian to apologise over a tweet – that Twitter itself did not think needed to be removed – has achieved the opposite of what he intended. The post in question – an illustration showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to a child’s throat, created in reference to a recent report that found elite forces had committed war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 – was retweeted by Zhao on Monday, sparking condemnation by Canberra and its allies. But Morrison’s sharp response galvanised nationalistic sentiment among Chinese netizens, with Zhao praised and the illustrator, who goes by the pseudonym Wuheqilin, becoming an overnight sensation. The fact is that Zhao – known for a “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy that has been increasingly used by many Chinese officials – did not design or doctor the image. He merely shared an artist’s opinion of the war crimes debacle – a work that could best be described as a digitally manipulated satirical propaganda piece meant for a domestic audience. After Morrison’s outburst, Wuheqilin’s follower count on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, doubled to some 1.24 million. The youthful bespectacled artist on Tuesday rode the wave of publicity by posting a video on Weibo urging Australia to instil greater military discipline “to avoid similar tragedies”. He also called on Morrison to refrain from “criticising an ordinary artist like me”. Australia’s war crimes in Afghanistan show cost of celebrating military Wuheqilin then created a second illustration on Tuesday night, which depicts international journalists turning their backs to military carnage, while aiming their cameras at a boy standing before a canvas splattered with blood. The new image, which garnered over 1.21 million likes, also shows Morrison squatting behind the media contingent, while holding an Australian flag over dead bodies with one hand and pointing to the boy with the other. The caption simply said “apologise”, with Wuheqilin making it clear his latest work was “dedicated to Morrison”. The Australian prime minister on Wednesday added more fuel to the fire by sending a WeChat message to the Chinese diaspora about the “fake image”. This would only give the wolf warrior and the artist more attention than they truly deserve. Australia PM seeks ‘happy coexistence’ with China after tweet row Morrison’s decision to attack an artistic expression may have allowed him to let off steam, but it has surely worsened the already tense relationship between the region’s two key trading partners. His response could also encourage artists such as Wuheqilin to create even more nationalistic images, given their wide domestic appeal. By not letting go of Zhao’s Twitter post, Morrison has enhanced a sense of nationalism on both sides, distracting from the actual problem – severely strained bilateral ties that have hit Australian businesses hard. Above all, Morrison’s strong response could reflect an uneasiness that China – long seen as a human rights violator – is now passing the same judgment on its traditional accusers. While Beijing has been documented to come down hard on Uygurs in Xinjiang and democracy activists in Hong Kong, China’s lack of participation in military operations overseas – apart from peacekeeping and humanitarian operations – means Beijing can hardly be accused of similar military behaviour that has been blamed on the Australian army. The tables have been turned and the role reversal probably takes some getting used to.