The Debate | Opinion

What Australian Media Gets Wrong About China

In 2019, China’s image in Australian media outlets took a noticeable turn for the worse.

Yuan Jiang
What Australian Media Gets Wrong About China
Credit: Pixabay

The Australian media’s perception of China has plummeted dramatically in the last 12 months. Given recent events regarding the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests, reports of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang re-education camps, Chinese donations to Australian political parties, MP Gladys Liu’s unclear connection with Beijing, and the dramatic defection of Wang Liqiang, China is becoming increasingly scrutinized by the Australian media.

Voices taking extreme anti-China positions are now easy to find. Australian politician Andrew Hastie has urged both the Australian government and the public to recognize the unprecedented democratic and security threat China poses, going as far as to compare the Western tolerance of China with the appeasement of Nazi Germany. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Stuart University has described the China’s infiltration into Australia as a “silent invasion.”

This rhetoric has diffused into public opinion, with the 2019 Lowy Institute poll showing that Australians’ trust in China to “act responsibly” has dropped to the lowest recorded in the history of Lowy Institute polling.

However, drawing on the above accounts, some narratives about China in the Australian media are incomplete due to deliberate choices by some media outlets to broadcast selective information.

Arguably, the economic contributions China have made are portrayed in a largely negative light, with outlets preferring to focus on the threat of Australia’s economic over-reliance on China. There is no doubt that China has grown to be Australia’s largest two-way trading partner since the end of the 2010s. In 2019, Australia’s share of exports going to China “reached a record 38 percent or AUD $117 billion” from 34 percent in 2018, which is “more than any other country.” Furthermore, Chinese international students have been acknowledged as the largest contributor to Australia’s education export industry, bringing in AU$32 billion per annum for the Australian economy. To stress this dependence on China, Chief Economist of PWC Jeremy Thorpe states that the Australian economy could lose 3-5 percent of GDP growth in the event of a Chinese economic nosedive. This establishes a key economic relationship between the two nations, edging on Australian economic reliance on China.

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However, some narratives only put forth the potential dangers of economic over-dependence, speculating that China may leverage trade with Australia for political advantages. In fact, this potential threat is just a possibility, while the economic benefit is the reality. Why do parts of the Australian media not print more stories about the commercial prosperity of some Australian corporations as a result of their involvement with China?

Also, these narratives have ignored one facet of the relationship: economically, China also needs Australia. For instance, China is heavily reliant on Australia for the import of raw materials, including 60 percent of its imported iron ore. Due to the high quality of Australian ore and the geographic proximity of Australia, Chinese imports of raw materials from Australia are not substitutable. Professor Rory Medcalf has also pointed out that “limitations to China’s domestic supply and the structure of global iron ore supply means China has few alternatives to Australia.” Thus, it would not benefit China to impose any trade restrictions. Meanwhile, China has been unsuccessful in past attempts to use economic pressure for geopolitical gains, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, resulting in intense criticism from the international community. Thus, suggesting Australia should fear the economic leverage of China is unproven at best.

Additionally, as scholar Zhang Weiwei and former Australian Ambassador Geoff Raby argue, some media narratives preconceive a notion that China is “a repressive regime clinging to power,” a “disruptor to the rules-based order and potential aggressor” with skeletons in the cupboard, ignoring the historical conduct of other geopolitical players. In fact, it is undeniable that every global rising power has tried to wield influence over other nations. In the Australian case, as former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said, China seeks to influence the decision-making of Australia in such a manner that Australia may become more amenable to China’s interests and values, which is identical to how other powers have acted throughout history. The media conveniently overlook the influence of Britain and America upon Australian policy both today and historically; why China should be treated any differently? It seems that some narratives are more concerned about ideological disparity rather than reality. Essentially, these narratives have played a role in exaggerating controversial behavior by China internationally, feeding greater vigilance domestically.

But does Australia benefit from this skewed position from its media? The answer is no. Exacerbating public opinion will invisibly affect Australia’s attractiveness for Chinese investment and students. In reality, declining registrations of Chinese students have already appeared, as acknowledged by Sydney University Associate Professor Salvatore Babones. He argues that admissions of Australian Chinese students this year until the end of May has risen by only 2.4 percent. Similarly, Financial Times reporter Jamie Smyth also suggests that “there are already signs of a slow down with a dip in Chinese student visas issued in the June quarter and Macquarie University in Sydney implementing budget cuts, at least in part because of a fall in international students.” To some extent, these two reports predict growing negativity toward Australia on the part of Chinese students and their parents. Additionally, deteriorating public opinion will influence the rhetoric of the Australian government, thus damaging Sino-Australian relations. Raby even argues that bilateral relations are at the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations, underpinned by the fact that no Australian prime minister has visited China since 2016.

To reform this, voices in the Australian media could maybe provide more diverse opinions, as befits its democratic heritage. To achieve this aim, the Australian government should play a leading role by not being so hostile in its official rhetoric toward China. For instance, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton’s comments on China being “incompatible” with Australian values only strains Sino-Australian relations further. The Australian government should follow a more traditionally diplomatic route to voice their criticisms toward China. Additionally, the media should become more engaged with the Chinese community, giving them a voice and making them feel more actively engaged in Australian society. After all, every voice has the right to be heard.

Yuan Jiang is a Chinese Ph.D. student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology. He is affiliated with the QUT Digital Media Research Centre.