By Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) – A young, bespectacled computer graphic artist unknown outside China has found instant notoriety overseas after a computer-generated image of his sparked a row between Beijing and Canberra.
The widely circulated, digitally manipulated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child was tweeted by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on Monday, drawing the fury of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The number of social media followers of the artist, who calls himself Wuheqilin, has since risen to 1 million, with some hailing the image as a new chapter in Chinese propaganda artwork.
“Wuheqilin” in Chinese translates to “a qilin amid the masses,” referring to the one-horned mythical beast.
“The paintbrush of Wuheqilin is more effective than an army,” said a user on China’s Twitter-like microblog Weibo (NASDAQ:).
Wuheqilin also proclaims himself as a “wolf warrior” artist, after two popular Chinese movies in which the action hero prevails over evil U.S. mercenaries. The phrase “wolf warriors” is also used by international media to characterise China’s sometimes combative diplomacy.
Wuheqilin has long supported Chinese propaganda artwork, but it was only last summer when he infused political themes into his images as Hong Kong was rocked by street protests, according to interviews with Chinese media.
“There’re too many cases where comics are used to smear China – from the Hong Kong protests last year to the COVID-19 epidemic at the start of the year and to Western countries passing the buck to China and asking for compensation (over COVID-19), I’ve seen countless examples,” Wuheqilin told Guancha.cn, a nationalistic media outlet, in June.
“One of the responsibilities of artwork and artists is to promote and export ideology… Especially during this special period when the West is using their say to press hard on China.”
His first politically-charged image “A Pretender God” (2019) depicts a group of Hong Kong protesters worshipping the Statue of Liberty. Instead of a torch and a tablet, she holds a petrol bomb and a keyboard.
It was unclear if he has any ties with the Chinese government and ruling Communist Party, although he was invited to an event organised by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League during China’s national cybersecurity week in September, according to his Weibo.
Wuheqilin declined to be interviewed by Reuters.
On social media, Wuheqilin said he was thrilled foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted his work.
“Director Zhao, so powerful!! Let’s kick some ass! Disarm them for me!!!” Wuheqilin wrote on Weibo.
In contrast, he had few kind words for Morrison.
Morrison has condemned the tweet and demanded an apology from China, whose relations with Australia have worsened after Canberra called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’d still advise Mr. Morrison to face reality and put his effort in domestic affairs, like making sure his military becomes more disciplined so that this kind of tragedy does not ever happen again,” Wuheqilin said in the interview with Guancha.
Australian troops have fought in the war in Afghanistan since 2001 but there is no indication that Wuheqilin’s image depicted any actual event.
Last week, the head of Australia’s army said the government had told 13 special forces soldiers they face dismissal in relation to an independent report on alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan.
Late on Tuesday, Wuheqilin posted another image, titled “To Morrison”, which shows Morrison holding what could be a flag over dead bodies and pointing at a child standing before a bloody canvas, while a gaggle of photographers turn their cameras toward the young artist.