New Zealanders are bleating "like Aussie sheep" over a graphic image posted to Twitter by a senior Chinese official, according to China's state-run media.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday said New Zealand had directly raised concerns with China over a digitally-altered picture of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat shared by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
That image is a reference to a recent report alleging Australian special forces unlawfully killed 39 Afghans over a period of years. In the report, a 2016 document is mentioned which includes unsubstantiated claims two 14-year-olds boys were also killed.
It sparked outrage in Australia, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China and calling the picture "repugnant".
China's state-run media website the Global Times has responded to Ardern's comments, running a piece on Wednesday headlined: "Kiwis bleat like Aussie sheep but don’t condemn Afghan killings".
The article is written by one of the outlet's reporters based on an interview with Wang Shiming, a professor of advanced international and area studies at the East China Normal University.
It says that while Ardern described the Twitter image as "unfactual", the Global Times claims it is a "satirical cartoon" that's based on the recent Defence Force report.
"The consecutive moves of Canberra and Wellington to describe the cartoon as 'false' or 'unfactual' are actually trying to shift people's attention away from Australian troops' brutality against Afghan civilians," the article says.
"Ironic absurdist cartoons are very common in the West, which claims to protect the freedom of speech with unfettered publishing and creativity. The actual scene represented by the satirical cartoon was much crueler than what people can see from the illustration."
The Global Times says that given the closeness of New Zealand and Australia, it is "normal that New Zealand has expressed concerns over this incident".
That seems to fly in the face of what Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Wednesday when questioned about Ardern's remarks. She asked why New Zealand was getting involved.
"Frankly, I was very surprised when I read it in the news. Does this matter have anything to do with New Zealand? Can it be that New Zealand agrees with or even supports Australia's deeds?" Chunying said.
Ardern said on Tuesday that our decision to express concern came from a "principled position" and was an action New Zealand would have taken if another jurisdiction acted in a similar way.
Asked whether New Zealand also expressed concern with Australia over the alleged killings, Ardern said when it comes to behaviour within the theatres of war, "each of us as nations need to accept our own responsibility and, of course, take action when concerns are raised".
She said Australia was working through its own issues.
"We would have an expectation and our international framework is geared up for each nation to take responsibility where that has occurred. New Zealand has had to do that in the past. We wouldn't necessarily expect other countries to come in in a situation where we need to take direct responsibility."
Ardern said she hadn't personally spoken to Morrison about the image before New Zealand raised concern with China.
The Global Times piece says Ardern's expression of concern on Tuesday "was restrained, having taken into account the overall situation of New Zealand-China relations". Although Australia is Aotearoa's closest ally, China is our largest trading partner.
But the Chinese media outlet took issue with the Kiwi Prime Minister saying that while New Zealand sticks to "our independent foreign policy", that "doesn't stop us observing what is happening with others".
"Ardern has demonstrated that New Zealand will not stop playing double standard, tricks the West uses so often. This is also part of the so-called Western values - the freedom to be hypocrites. As a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, New Zealand has to stick to such values."
The piece then goes on to accuse "Western media and politicians" of racism, of being self-obsessed, and of not wanting to be criticised.
"Those Westerners need to wake up to the fact that developing countries, represented by China, can no longer tolerate their double standards, remain silent or do nothing.
"The West should take the latest incident as an alarm bell - when they smear other countries with baseless accusations, why can't other countries criticise the West or make well-intentioned suggestions for their misdeeds?"
Aotearoa has previously seen verbal backlash from China after speaking out on issues like judicial independence in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang. Just two weeks ago, China criticised the Five Eyes for releasing a statement expressing concern at its Hong Kong policy.
This week's tit-for-tat between China and Australia is just the latest in escalating tensions between the two countries. Relations soured earlier this year in the wake of Australia leading the charge for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 in China and have continued to worsen as Australia took issue with some of its domestic arrangements.
That's led China to retaliate both with aggressive rhetoric and by taking trade or export actions. Last week, China imposed temporary tariffs of more than 200 percent on wine imported from Australia. In light of China's latest poking of Australia, there have been calls for people to purchase the wine and boycott Chinese goods.
After the military report was released in November, the Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell apologised to Afghanistan and it has been reported that Morrison rang the Afghan leader to express his sorrow.