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Lowy poll: Interpreting the China results

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COMMENTS

1 October 2008 14:41

Guest blogger: Brendan Taylor is a lecturer in the Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence program, ANU.

There’s been a bit of hype about the sudden shift in Australian public attitudes vis-à-vis China revealed in this week’s Lowy poll. But I wouldn’t be reading too much into these figures just yet.

This has been both an important and difficult year for China – but it is also likely to prove the exception to the rule in many respects. The Lowy poll dutifully acknowledges the role which developments such as the Tibet crackdown and the Olympic torch relay might have played in producing such results. The July timeframe in which the polling was conducted is likely to have skewed these results still further. This was in the run up to the Olympics, when Beijing was coming under heavy media criticism over a whole host of issues including pollution, human rights abuses and its capacity to host a terror-free games.

But what if the polling was conducted in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, when Australia and the world displayed huge public sympathy? Or what if it was conducted during the arguably very successful and trouble-free Olympics themselves or immediately following? Would the results have been different yet again? I assume so.

Allan Gyngell and Michael Wesley published a fascinating piece in the AFR earlier this year where they pointed to a potential fragility in Australian public attitudes towards China. The Lowy poll would appear to confirm their instincts.

The obvious next question, however, is what is the source of this fragility and does it ultimately matter?

On both counts, my guess is probably not. The 2008 Lowy poll would appear to confirm this judgement. Indeed, its findings suggest that the primary source of this fragility vis-à-vis China is mere public indifference, as opposed to any genuine electoral volatility.

According to the poll, issues of values (promoting democracy in other countries, for instance) rank very low among Australia’s foreign policy goals. Likewise, the rise of China and the prospect of a China-Taiwan confrontation are well down the list when it comes to perceived threats to Australia’s vital interests.

Against this backdrop, it is one thing for respondents to say Australia is not doing enough to pressure China on human rights issues. But it is quite a leap to suggest that the issue is sufficiently high on the average punter’s list of policy priorities to mean they actually want the government to do anything about it. (It’s worth also keeping in mind here that Prime Minister Rudd’s natural association with China didn’t appear to do him too much harm in the run up to last year's federal election.)

Public opinion on China could matter much more in future years, though, as Australia’s demographic profile changes. If Australia’s Chinese-born population continues to increase even at present rates, the Lowy poll of 2058 could make for some very interesting reading.

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