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Australia’s China debate needs nuance

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Performers dressed in costumes dance for spectators as part of celebrations for the Chinese Lunar New Year and marking the Year of the Dog in Sydney, Australia, 16 February 2018 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

In Brief

While online Chinese-language media in Australia is often singled out as evidence of Beijing’s control of the Australian-Chinese community, what is not acknowledged is that pro-Australian patriotism is routinely expressed in these spaces as well. To be sure, there are stories that cast Chinese people in a favourable light and outbursts of pro-Chinese patriotism from time to time, especially on issues of territorial sovereignty.


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But these Chinese-language websites also run stories that show Chinese individuals behaving badly, stories about random kindness from Australian strangers and stories about how humane and egalitarian Australian society is.

By comparison, current mainstream Australian discourses about China seem to demonstrate less capacity for handling ambiguity and contradiction. Too often, English-language news stories on such topics do not involve unearthing previously unknown facts. Rather, they frequently regurgitate already contested half-truths. They seem to be more about finding examples to fit within a pre-existing narrative. And if no evidence is available, some speculation will do the trick.

In recent years, standards in Australian mainstream journalism have been slipping due to reduced staffing, diminished resources and a slump in readership. Debate about China has been one of the biggest casualties. Too often, in-depth, balanced reporting, robust interrogation and rigorous fact-checking are sacrificed in favour of populist sentiments.

Such a tendency in Australia’s commercial media is unfortunate, but understandable. But on most occasions, the Australian taxpayer funded ABC also seems quite happy to follow the agenda set by the commercial media.

The quality of commentaries and op-ed pieces in Australia is hardly any better. For many analysts who pride themselves on being critical thinkers, it seems that as soon as China is discussed, their critical faculties are switched off in the name of Australian values and national security.

We are also witnessing a curious scenario: people from different ideological and political camps have become strange bedfellows. Who would have thought that defence and security experts and human rights advocates would be singing in harmony?

Educated and media-savvy members of the Australian public seem perfectly capable of interrogating the media in its coverage of domestic affairs, be it about matters such as the environment, marriage equality or indigenous affairs. They generally read between the lines, take what the media says with a grain of salt and reach their own conclusions. But when it comes to China, it can be a very different story. Too often, people read a news story about China’s influence in Australia, they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that! It’s really troubling. It’s a worry’.

Audiences tend to defer to the media on subjects they know little about. News about foreign affairs and international relations fall into this category. And since the media have to rely on the opinions of experts, the role of China Studies scholars is crucial, especially in the initial stages of defining a given situation. Unfortunately, journalists tend to approach the same couple of academics from one side of the debate and represent them as the unified voice of the entire scholarly community. This is lazy journalism, with serious consequences.

One outcome of this unfortunate tendency is the growing level of anti-Chinese sentiment on the ground. A couple of years ago, there were many more stories in Australia’s Chinese-language media that fitted into an enchantment narrative — that is, Australia is beautiful, clean and friendly, and we’re so lucky to be living here. Now, such stories are fewer. Instead, there are more stories about anti-Chinese hostility in public spaces such as trains and buses.

A related outcome is that Chinese migrant communities — including both PRC migrants and those from elsewhere — are feeling increasingly alienated. International students from China feel they do not have an equal chance to put forward their views without being branded as stooges of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is also the case with scholars and professionals of Chinese origin. When encouraged to speak up in defence of a more balanced discussion about China, they are likely to say, ‘What’s the point? If I disagree, that just gives them more “evidence” that I’m controlled by the CCP’.

Chinese migrants are potential assets in Australia’s public diplomacy agenda. This is clearly stated in Australia’s recent White Paper on Foreign Policy. They can be instrumental in shaping the perceptions of prospective Chinese students, tourists and investors. How actively they assume this role — and whether the messages they convey are positive or negative — depends on how they are treated in Australia.

Currently, any vestige of the longstanding goodwill this community has felt towards their adopted homeland is being squandered away, and Chinese-Australians are being pushed to dis-identify from Australia and to re-engage, more intensely than before, with China. This will not improve if the China debate continues to be mired in and beholden to domestic politics, and if leadership in political parties and public broadcasters remains absent.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Technology Sydney.

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