Written by Wanning Sun.

The China-Australia relationship is asymmetrical. In the eyes of most Chinese, Australia is a reliable supplier of coal and other natural resources, a nice tourist destination, and perhaps a good choice for middle-class children to study English. Australia is known to the Chinese mostly as a land of fresh air, natural resources, kangaroos and an opera house. That is about it. Australia is relatively inconsequential to China’s economy. To Australia, China is its biggest trade partner; Australia’s economy is sustained by the mining boom and agricultural products, and rides on the back of China’s sustained economic growth. So, if there is any truth in the saying, ‘When China sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold’, Australia’s economy will be very sick indeed if China’s demand for Australian resources declines.

Complicating the simple picture of asymmetric economic relations, the Australian government and media often refuse to be submissive to China despite (or perhaps because of) her status as a dependent and therefore vulnerable trading partner. In the eyes of the Chinese, both the Australian government and the Australian media are prone to self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour when it comes to handling China. This self-destructive behaviour is manifest in several ways. First, China believes that Australian media tend to say only negative things about China. Over the last couple of years, the Chinese government has protested numerous times over ‘biased’ and ‘untruthful’ reporting on China by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), especially on issues of human rights, and particularly in the context of ethnic tensions. The most recent example is a warning from senior Chinese officials to the ABC in October that its airing of a story about ethnic tensions in Xinjiang on the ABC’s flagship international current affairs program Foreign Correspondent would have ‘wider implications’. What China doesn’t realise is that the Australian media can be negative about both the Chinese government and its own government, and it’s not just China that is targeted.

Second, the Australian government does not seem to have control over how media professionals report on China or what is said about China by individuals who appear in the media. In August this year, on the ABC’s live weekly current affairs television program Q&A, Clive Palmer, mining billionaire and leader of the newly formed and still small Palmer United Party (PUP), described the Chinese government as ‘mongrels’ who shoot their own people, and said that ‘they haven’t got a justice system and they want to take over this country’. Although senior politicians in the Australian government wasted no time in distancing themselves from Palmer’s remarks, the Chinese were not pacified. An editorial in the English-language edition of China’s Global Times, a popular nationalist newspaper, said: ‘Not long ago, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Tony Abbott also made bitter remarks against China without any reason, which was quite astonishing. Now Palmer’s “bastards” ravings have intensified this’. Furthermore, China doesn’t seem to realise that even though the Australian government wants to have more control over its media and its political opponents, being a liberal-democracy, its capacity to control freedom of expression is limited. Hence, the Global Times’s bemusement: ‘People can imagine what would come next if a Chinese politician or business tycoon made such unscrupulous remarks by calling a whole country “bastard”. This person will be doomed. But in Australia, Palmer will probably not bear too much cost for his nonsense’.

Third, in the eyes of the Chinese people, Australian government officials can be two-faced when it comes to handling China, saying one thing about China to its domestic media, and saying something quite different to China. In July this year, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that she would stand up to China in defence of Australian values. While Bishop’s tough posturing may have won her some credibility as a new foreign minister, her remark came across to the Chinese as gratuitous and extremely provocative. The Global Times, again, rose to the occasion, calling Bishop ‘rude’, ‘bad-mannered’, and a ‘complete fool’. Realising that the message intended for Australia’s domestic audience had ended up offending the Chinese (oops!), Bishop sought damage control through diplomatic channels, explaining that she had meant no offence. But the Chinese were not satisfied. Again, on 16 July, the editorial of the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times has this to say: ‘If Bishop claims that her words were distorted in the Australian media, then she should clarify her position through her domestic media. Her silence in the Australian media following her interview suggests that she had accepted the Australian media’s reading and reporting of her position. She tries to say conciliatory words to China but only quietly, hoping to avoid repercussions in domestic public opinion. China should not condone this egregious practice of Western politicians bad-mouthing China in their domestic media, and then trying to “clear the air” with China “privately”’.

This dressing-down clearly was not intended just for the domestic audience of the Global Times in China. As for the role of the Chinese media in the China–Australia relationship, that’s quite another story. A few things are worth remembering about the Chinese media’s coverage of Australia and the Sino-Australian relationship. First, while the Chinese can be very sceptical and highly capable of reading between the lines when fed the Party’s propaganda on a wide array of domestic issues, there is a high level of willingness to take the official line at face value when it comes to international relations, particularly when issues of national pride and sovereignty are concerned. Second, nationalism is a very potent sentiment as well as an enduring ideology, and it plays a key part in the approaches that China’s commercial media take to issues of international relations.

What do these examples tell us about China’s media, soft power and public diplomacy? First, public diplomacy increasingly takes the form of media diplomacy, whereby the media play a crucial role in mediating and escalating diplomatic tensions and conflicts. Second, the manipulation of the boundaries between domestic and foreign audiences is practised by both sides when it comes to reporting on diplomatic relations. However, while it seems to work well for the Chinese government, it seems to operate as a double-edged sword for liberal democracies like Australia. It is not clear whether Julie Bishop was gratified or embarrassed to see that China’s angry responses had been duly reported in the Australian media. Nor is it possible to gauge whether she has gained or lost ‘brownie points’ with the Australian public over the incident. Finally, mainstream commercial media such as the Global Times can be quite an effective platform for China to articulate its feelings, air its grievances, and make heart-felt statements that are nevertheless too blunt to appear as official positions in the state media. For this reason, analysis of China’s opportunities and challenges in its soft power, public diplomacy and image-management exercises should not be too fixated on state media such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily, and the CCTV.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication Studies at University of Technology Sydney Australia. Her main research interests include Chinese media and communication, soft power and public diplomacy, and media of the Chinese diaspora. wanning.sun@uts.edu.au Image credit: CC by Pierre Pouliquin/Flickr