First-generation PRC migrants and social cohesion: Views on news about the PRC and Chinese-Australians
August 30 2023
This report investigates responses and reactions by first-generation Mandarin-speaking migrants in Australia from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to news stories about the PRC and about Chinese-Australian communities in English-language Australian digital, print, television and other media.
Drawing on three focus groups, a quantitative survey of 689 respondents and 20 in-depth interviews, this report seeks to understand the implications of these first-generation migrants’ views on news reporting for social cohesion in Australia.
Social cohesion has been identified as a key element of Australia’s national interest, underpinning Australia’s prosperity and security. Indeed, security commentators make the case that ‘building trusted and apolitical engagement with all parts of the community, and notably Australians of Chinese origin’ is an important component of formulating an overarching national interest strategy. Facilitating the integration of minority groups, particularly those as sizeable as the Chinese-Australian communities, is not only consistent with a liberal perspective of justice and equality, but it is also a matter of pragmatic importance, especially if Australia is intent on growing its own political influence and increasing its national power in strategic competition with foreign coercive influence.
Social cohesion is a composite of several key components, including a sense of belonging, a sense of worth, a sense of social inclusion and justice, level of political participation, and level of acceptance or rejection. This study engages with these components through the prism of three broad contexts: (1) how Australia’s PRC migrants see themselves and their community portrayed in the media; (2) how they see the PRC portrayed in the media; and (3) what impact they think such portrayals have on Australia’s general public.
This report finds that:
- Both focus group discussions and in- depth interviewees perceive a high level of professionalism and balance in the Australian English-language media’s reporting on domestic issues. They acknowledge that Australia’s English-language media, in contrast to PRC state media, tend to adopt a critical stance due to different news values. Interviewees generally express more trust in the Australian media than in PRC state media.
- At the same time, a substantial majority (78 percent) of survey respondents believe that when Australia’s English-language media report on Chinese-Australians they tend to lack fairness and balance. Many in-depth interviewees expressed frustration that Chinese-Australians have been portrayed in Australian English-language media reports on Chinese influence as either in need of protection from persecution by the Chinese government, or as real or potential agents of Chinese influence. For these interviewees, the bulk of reporting has largely overlooked the positive role their community has made to Australian society.
- Just over half (51 percent) of survey respondents believe that Australia’s English- language media were either ‘relatively distrustful’ (42 percent) or ‘completely distrustful’ (nine percent) of Chinese-Australian communities, and seven in 10 (70 percent) believe that the media tend to portray them, both collectively and individually, as objects of suspicion and risks to national security. Despite the diverse range of opinions and political views within this cohort, these figures, when combined with interview data, point to a widespread feeling among respondents that their community is substantially more likely to be mistrusted, misunderstood and misinterpreted by the Australian English-language media now than in the past.
- There is a widespread perception among survey respondents that Australian English-language media reporting on PRC-related issues has led to a low level of acceptance of their community by the Australian public. About six in 10 (63 percent) respondents self-report feelings of emotional and mental anguish and helplessness in response to the media’s perceived ‘othering’ rhetoric in their reporting of most matters Chinese.
- Over half of survey respondents (53 percent) believe that reporting by the Australian English-language media on the PRC has been ‘too negative’.
- Despite Australian English-language media and government attempts to differentiate the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the nation of China from Chinese- Australian communities, a majority of survey respondents (51 percent) believe that hostile coverage of the PRC has led to suspicion of them, regardless of the media’s and government’s intentions. Both the quantitative and qualitative data in this report show that the prevailing narrative of geopolitical tensions between Australia and the PRC and the media’s tendency to depict the PRC as a hostile country have posed serious challenges for PRC migrants in their efforts to be accepted into Australian society.
- There are a number of ways in which Australian English-language media reporting can diminish PRC first-generation migrants’ sense of worth as a community. Central to this problem is the discrepancy between their self- perceptions, and how they believe they are perceived by the public. The majority of survey respondents (58 percent) believe that they are better informed about the PRC than both Australia’s English-speaking public and the Chinese public living in the PRC, and hence better positioned than either group to assess the accuracy of the Australia’s media reporting on the PRC. In-depth interviews provide myriad reasons behind this belief. They also show an acute awareness of the widespread public perception that they have been ‘brainwashed’ by PRC propaganda.
- Interviewees emphasise that while they do not have a problem with ‘negative’ news about the PRC, they frequently perceive a particular news-making agenda in Australian English-language media that frames the PRC and Chinese-Australians as hostile entities.
- Despite an increased level of interest in engaging with Australia’s electoral processes as voters, 76 percent of survey respondents report that they feel that they rarely or never have a say in shaping public debates. Around six in 10 (63 percent) report prevalent feelings of powerlessness in relation to having their voices heard by the media. A small number of respondents report having lodged complaints about media reporting by writing either to politicians (eight percent) or the media outlet in question (six percent).* However, most report that they tend to process such daily feelings of ‘discursive injustice’ by airing them within their own community and through their own networks, by discussing them with family and friends (55 percent), or sharing in their social media networks (23 percent).
- There are deep complexities in respondents’ sense of belonging. Considered together, survey participants’ responses to a number of questions indicate a high level of ambivalence, uncertainty and even conflicted feelings towards both Australia and the PRC. On the one hand, respondents seem to remain strongly committed to making Australia home: compared with
five years ago, one in three (33 percent) report no change in their sense belonging, and another 38 percent report a stronger sense of belonging; 10 percent report having a substantially reduced sense of belonging to Australia, and only two percent say they no longer have any sense of belonging. On the other hand, 46 percent of respondents either strongly agree (17 percent) or are inclined to agree (29 percent) that reading media stories about the China threat has diminished their sense of belonging to mainstream Australian society.
- Despite a commitment to remaining in Australia, and because they see Australia as a better place than the PRC to build their lives, an overwhelming majority of respondents (91 percent) voice concerns that Australia’s English-language media have a tendency to engage in speculation about war with China, primarily because they believe such speculation has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are equally concerned about how Chinese-Australians would be treated should Australia find itself at war with the PRC.
Professor Wanning Sun is Deputy Director at UTS:ACRI and a Professor of Media and Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS.
To read the full paper please download the PDF
Wanning Sun, More work to do: How Chinese-Australians perceive coverage of themselves and China in Australian media, The Conversation, August 30 2023.
UTS:ACRI, First-generation PRC migrants and social cohesion - Report launch, UTS:ACRI event, September 7 2023.
 Heather Smith, ‘Reconciling the Australian national interest’, Australian Outlook, Australian Institute for International Affairs, April 14 2023 <https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/reconciling-the-australian-national-interest/>.
 Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, ‘About us – Our portfolios – Social cohesion’, accessed July 19 2023 <https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about-us/our-portfolios/social-cohesion/about-social-cohesion>.
 Rory Medcalf and Michelle Price, ‘Why Australia needs a total national interest strategy’, The Australian Financial Review, December 9 2020 <https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/why-australia-needs-a-total-national-interest-strategy-20201208-p56lr5>.
 James O’Donnell, Mapping social cohesion 2022, Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, 2022 <https://scanloninstitute.org.au/mapping-social-cohesion-2022>.
*The original version of this report said that 'Fourteen percent report having lodged complaints about media reporting by writing either to politicians (eight percent) or the media (six percent).' This has been updated for clarity and accuracy.