When Ali Haj Suleiman saw his prize-winning photos of children scavenging in war rubble shared on Twitter by a top Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, the Syrian photojournalist was not flattered. The children of war-torn Syria were presented as victims of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan.
Suleiman took screengrabs of the tweet and tagged spokesman Zhao Lijian, seeking a correction and apology for the use without permission of his work and the misrepresentation of the images. Zhaoâ€™s Jan. 24 tweet said: â€œThis is 20 years of war, America’s consequences for children in ‘Afghanistan’.” Suleiman noticed it on Jan. 27.
“These large and small shells are the Syrian Assad regime supported by Russiaâ€¦the legacy of attacks against Syrian civilians and children,â€ wrote Suleiman, who at 23 has spent half his life with his country embroiled in a brutal civil war.
â€œHe did not contact me and did not apologize after deleting the tweet,â€ Suleiman told RFAâ€™s Mandarin Service in an interview by text, translated from Arabic to English.
â€œIâ€™m so angry because what the officials are doing is changing the truth,â€ he wrote.
The children in the image that Zhao misrepresented were risking their lives to collect scrap metal from bullet casings and artillery shells to earn money survive the war, Suleiman wrote from northwestern Syriaâ€™s Idlib province, the sole remaining stronghold of the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The tweet disappeared without explanation, but not before it stayed up several days to be shared by Zhaoâ€™s 1.1 million followers, and circulated widely on the popular Sina Weibo inside China.
Suleiman also documented that Zhaoâ€™s tweet was shared by fellow Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying, who deleted the post after the Syrianâ€™s complaints.
â€œItâ€™s so annoying when you see officials in countries trying to change the facts,â€ said Suleiman, whose photos of the Syrian children won honorable mention last year in the UNICEF Photo of the Year Award.
Zhao and Hua are proponents of Chinaâ€™s “wolf warrior” diplomacy featuring envoys who aggressively use of social media platforms like Twitter that are banned in China to insult, threaten against governments or individuals that criticize China.
They and their colleagues are no strangers to having misleading social media posts blow up in their faces before being quietly removed.
In November 2020, Zhao responded to a report on Australian atrocities in Afghanistan by posting a doctored image showing a smiling Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife at the throat of a veiled child, who is holding a lamb.
â€˜This is not the first timeâ€™
Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology for what he called “a false image and a terrible slur” that Beijing “should be totally ashamed of.”
A report last May by the Oxford Internet Institute following the removal of tens of thousands of fake pro-China social media accounts by major platforms found that many of the accounts supported the work of public figures pushing “wolf warrior” diplomacy on Twitter.
China’s then ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, had nearly 27,000 fake accounts following his account on Twitter, which had retweeted Liu’s tweets nearly 200,000 times before being deleted by the platform, the report found.
International relations expert Yao-Yuan Yeh of the University of St. Thomas in Houston told RFA that the latest row is unlikely to convert Zhao to fact checking before posting.
“He doesn’t care what the facts are, because the core focus of big external propaganda is big internal propaganda. In fact, he wants to tell the country how good we are by smearing the United States,â€ said Yeh.
â€œFor him, verification of facts and information are not important at all, and this is not the first time, nor will it be the last,â€ he added.
For Suleiman, who turned to photography to document the war after his family fled the capital Damascus for opposition-held Idlib after the arrest of his father in 2014, Zhaoâ€™s clumsy propaganda effort is made worse by the fact that China is a diplomatic supporter of the Assad regime at the United Nations.
â€œThe Chinese government is participating in the ongoing massacre against the Syrian people through its use of its veto in the Security Council against decisions aimed at deterring the Syrian regime from killing the people and even against decisions to pass humanitarian aid to Syrians across the border,â€ he told RFA.
Written in English by Paul Eckert.