Australian media discourse on China - with James Laurenceson

Guest: James Laurenceson, Deputy Director, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Host: Bob Carr, Director, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

When Australia talks about China, the China Opportunity and the China Challenge forms part of the discourse. The China Opportunity reflects the enormous economic benefits that Australia already derives from its $184 billion trade relationship with China. The China Challenge reflects the reality that as China has risen in wealth and power, some of its behaviour has conflicted with Australia’s interests. These narratives are grounded in facts and evidence. However, in the last 18 months the discourses of China Threat, China Angst and China Panic – which are less evidence-based – have become more prevalent.

James Laurenceson joins host Bob Carr to discuss the key findings of his new ACRI research report, ‘Do the claims stack up? Australia talks China’. The report examines recent Australian media discourse about China and assesses the evidence base for various claims made about China and Chinese influence and interference in Australia.

The China Challenge, which encompasses issues such as the extrajudicial detention of minority populations in Xinjiang and the Chinese government’s flouting of international law and militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea, is one part of the Australian discourse. Cases cited in this narrative are based on evidence and facts on the ground.

Australian discourse on China, however, has tended to drift away from the China Challenge towards China Threat, China Angst, and China Panic narratives, which are less grounded in facts and evidence.

For example, in the media during 2017-18 some commentators claimed that Australian political parties had been compromised due to their overreliance on foreign donations, especially donations from Chinese sources. Some asserted that Chinese donations had steadily increased in recent years. The evidence shows that only one Chinese citizen was named in these reports – Huang Xiangmo – along with another Australian citizen born in China, Chau Chak Wing. Furthermore, academic studies demonstrate that total foreign donations accounted for only 2.6 percent of total donations in the last federal election cycle, and there has been no increase in Chinese donations over time.

Another example is the long-term lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company Landbridge. Despite commentators’ assertions that the lease constitutes a threat to Australia’s national security, the defence establishment has been on the record stating there are no such concerns.

University students from China have been treated poorly by the Australian press. Despite the breadth of coverage of Chinese students’ objections to Australian lecturers’ teaching material, in fact only four incidents occurred. Furthermore, classroom discussion was not shut down nor freedom of expression threatened.

The perpetuation of these narratives - China Threat, China Angst, and China Panic – impedes Australia’s ability to respond to the genuine challenges and opportunities that China poses. For example, the Pacific Islands would benefit from increased collaboration between Australia and China on the provision of infrastructure, rather than adversarial competition.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

November 15 2018