Commentary | 09 June 2017

Australia's reputation in China entrenched as greedy, untrustworthy and a US lapdog

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

The Chinese media's response to the recent Fairfax Media-Four Corners report on Beijing's influence in Australia has been unequivocal – they argue the report was biased, baseless, and "not even worth refuting".

China's reporting frames its objections to the investigation squarely within certain widely accepted and deeply held world views that underpin how many Chinese people understand their country and its international relationships. The result is a further entrenchment of feelings of persecution, isolation, and aggrieved self-righteousness. Mainstream Chinese perceptions of Australia are also negatively affected.

Chinese coverage of the investigation has included several stories in Chinese for the domestic audience, and one in English, "China slams Australian TV program". The Chinese-language reporting notes that Beijing respects Australia, and has no reason to interfere in Australian domestic affairs. Indeed, this piece argues that interfering in another country's affairs is "a Western thing", and China has no intention of doing the same.

Several reports note Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying's comments that China's approach to the bilateral relationship is one of "mutual respect, equality, and benefits". Ms Hua also calls on Australian media to "discard its ideological bias". Elsewhere, a poll has been set up that asks whether respondents agree that the program represents a "threatening and avaricious" logic – so far out of 953 respondents, 92 per cent agree.

The angles taken by Chinese media fit into a powerful victimisation narrative in which most Chinese understand their country to be in the process of pulling itself out of more than 100 years of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. The media arguments also play into the strongly held belief that cultural characteristics are unchanging, both for China and others. In this case, China is portrayed as inherently peaceful and unthreatening, and Australia is painted as untrustworthy and opportunistic. Australia is seen as wanting to limit China's "natural rejuvenation", while at the same time happily getting rich, thanks to Chinese trade and investment. I came across this opinion of Australia many times in a recent visit to China, across a wide range of social groups.

It should be noted that so far only the Global Times has covered this story. The Global Times is not considered a "government mouthpiece", such as, for example, The People's Daily. This suggests that the media response is not an official government message, but at the same time, it is government approved. That is, the Chinese government doesn't mind if the Chinese people have these views about Australia and the bilateral relationship, but they don't feel any need to stir up anti-Australian sentiment among the Chinese population.

This is borne out by looking at Chinese social media – so far there hasn't been any notable pick-up on this issue. This would suggest that on a scale of perceived insult, the Chinese government does not rate the airing of this program and the claims made as anywhere near as egregious as, for example, the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea, or an official meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Most Chinese see China as trying to overcome its humiliation and resume its rightful position. They believe that China is inherently peaceful, and Western countries like Australia are fundamentally, and without foundation, threatened by this "natural" resumption. The airing of this story is unlikely to negatively affect the Australia-China bilateral relationship in any long-term way. But, the perception of Australia in Chinese minds as greedy, untrustworthy, and a lapdog of the US has been strengthened.