Australian governments have been more forthright and public about their apprehensions over China’s intentions and actions in recent years. And for the past three years, the Lowy Institute has charted the attitudes of Chinese-Australian communities in the annual nationally representative survey, Being Chinese in Australia: Public Opinion in Chinese Communities. It was during the first two years of the survey that Australia called for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and China imposed punitive trade measures on Australian exports. The period covered by the third nationally representative survey, released today, has seen some stabilisation in the relationship, with the resumption of high-level government-to-government contact. The findings offer fascinating insights.
Chinese-Australians would seem to have responded to the events of the past year. Sentiments towards Australia are at an all-time high with 92% Chinese-Australians rating Australia as a “good” or “very good” place to live, a 15-point increase since 2020.
With Covid-19 lockdowns a thing of the past, Chinese-Australians are beginning to reconnect with their local community and with this, Australia. Sense of belonging has steadily increased over the last three years. In the latest survey, 75% of Chinese-Australians say they have a “moderate” or a “great” sense of belonging to Australia, an increase of 11 points since 2021. Connection to local community also grew by six points since 2021 to 67%.
Chinese-Australians’ increasing sense of connection to Australia is further bolstered by the finding that Australia is the most trusted country with three-quarters of Chinese-Australians believing Australia will act responsibly in the world. Paired with this sentiment is the fact that Chinese-Australians have more confidence in Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese than any other world leader. Six in 10 Chinese-Australians have “a lot” or “some” confidence in Albanese.
The end of pandemic lockdowns, the election of a new Australian government in 2022, and the thawing of the relationship with China give context to these optimistic figures.
Despite Chinese-Australians’ broader sense of optimism, China continues to dominate Australian headlines, not least some recent and stirring headlines in major mastheads. The latest survey finds that Chinese-Australians are evenly split between seeing Australian media reporting about China as too negative and fair and balanced (42% each).
Notwithstanding such views, Chinese-Australians and their information ecosystem is diverse. WeChat is one among several social media platforms used by Chinese-Australians. The top three most popular social media sites used daily are YouTube with 58% of Chinese-Australians indicating they use it daily, followed by Facebook with 49% and WeChat at 47%. There are legitimate concerns surrounding Tik Tok / Douyin (the Chinese version of Tik Tok). However, only 26% of Chinese-Australians use it daily. Conversely, around four in 10 Chinese-Australians have never used Tik Tok / Douyin.
When it comes to geopolitics, foreign policy and national security issues, Chinese-Australians are less pessimistic than the broader Australian population. Although Chinese-Australians are less confident in China and Russia and their respective leaders now than in the past two years, they have lower threat perception levels about world events involving both countries when compared to the wider population. For example, six in 10 Chinese-Australians are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, compared to nine in 10 of the broader Australian population. Furthermore, Chinese-Australians do not rate the risk of a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan as highly as the broader population when considering critical threats to Australia’s interests: 36% of Chinese-Australians see it as a critical threat, in contrast to 64% of the Australian population.
What explains this lack of pessimism? With 45% of Chinese-Australians born in China and 68% of their parents also born there, it gives some clue about the prevalence of such sentiment.
Perceptions of China as an economic partner remains consistent with previous surveys. Seven in 10 (71%) Chinese-Australians see China as an economic partner rather than as a security threat, compared to 33% of the Australian population. The divide between the two groups is also found in the importance attached to Australia’s alliance with the United States where only a slim majority (53%) of Chinese-Australians say it is “very” or “fairly” important compared to nearly nine in 10 Australians (87%).
These differences are amplified in an arena where the mere mention of China can stir retail politics. Yet, in a democracy, difference in perspectives and opinions should not be seen as a cost to the country but rather these disparities should be acknowledged and used as an aid to inform policymaking, whether it is about foreign or social policies.
There is remarkable resilience within the Chinese-Australian communities. As both China and Australia step out of their self-imposed Covid-19 isolation measures, that resilience will be further tested as the undercurrents of geopolitics and competition between major power begin to take shape in the domestic conversation.