Last week, on 4 October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, accompanied by Immigration Minister David Coleman, paid a visit to Hurstville in south Sydney, dropped in on some local Chinese shops, and had lunch with around 80 people—members and leaders of the local Chinese community. The event generated quite a buzz among the Chinese communities but went mostly unnoticed by the English-reading public.
It was a strange way to do diplomacy with China or was it domestic electioneering.It was all very odd.
At that lunch, Morrison made a speech that, to the audience gathered before him, was clearly prepared prior to the event. Coleman also made a short speech to introduce the Prime Minister, during which he said, ‘In my new role as the Minister, I am so keen to talk about the great success stories of multicultural Australia’.
Morrison’s speech was even more upbeat. Starting with a simple Chinese greeting—ni hao (hello)—and ending with xiexie (thank you), he said, ‘This afternoon, I want to affirm as Prime Minister that Australia will always, always welcome Chinese students, investors and visitors to our country, supporting our national interest’. He went on to say, ‘I’m very pleased to be here today to acknowledge the contribution of the Chinese national Australian community to that story of making Australia strong, which has not been happening for a very long time over our history. It hasn’t always been the case that, I think, Chinese Australians, those who have come here from China over hundreds of years, have had it easy. And it wasn’t always the case that that contribution was acknowledged’.
A local Chinese community leader, Mr Zhisen Zhang, was in the audience, and he had a chance to personally exchange a few pleasantries with the Prime Minister. He later went to the Prime Minister’s official website, downloaded the transcript of Morrison’s speech, and translated it into Chinese.
Hurstville, where residents of Chinese origin make up half the population, falls partly within the marginal seat of Banks, which is currently held by Minister Coleman. With the Federal Election looming, it was obvious that Morrison had come to lend support to Coleman’s campaign. But some Chinese leaders present at Morrison’s lunch believed that Morrison also wanted to use the visit to signal to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) his stance on Australia-China relations. If this is the case, then his strategy seems to have worked. The translated version of his speech was published in a number of Australia-based Chinese-language news websites such Sydney Today, and another story published by ACB News (澳华财经在线) was reproduced in China-based news outlets such as Guanchazhe (The Observer 观察者). The article was also widely circulated on Chinese social media, and was read with interest by China-based Australia watchers in China’s Australian Studies circuit.
The enthusiastic response to Morrison’s speech among Chinese communities at home and abroad was all too understandable. Given that these communities have been made to feel under siege for quite a while amidst the ‘Chinese influence’ debate, Morrison’s unambiguous endorsement of Chinese migrants’ contribution to the country and his favourable view on Australia-China relations came across as refreshingly smart. Mr Zhang, who translated the speech, praised Morrison for ‘demonstrating integrity and courage’.
In contrast, the English-language media’s lack of attention to the event is somewhat intriguing. News Corp purchased Hannah Higgins’ story on this from the Australian Associated Press and ran a very brief write-up in most of its titles. That story had a somewhat cynical but perhaps astute headline: ‘PM embarks on Chinese charm offensive’. But there was hardly any other news coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit, nor any substantial analysis of his speech.
To be sure, the Prime Minister visits places and makes speeches all the time, and not all of them are extensively covered by the media. But given that Morrison is a brand new Prime Minister, and this speech seems to send a clear and unambiguous signal about the Government’s attitude towards both the Australian Chinese community and China itself—and given the high degree of sensitivity with which Australia-China relations have been handled in recent times—the lack of a diverse range of mainstream coverage seems curious, to say the least. This contrasts clearly with the event at the University of New South Wales at which former Prime Minister Turnbull made his ‘reset’ speech about China, which received ample coverage across many different media outlets.
Could it be that Morrison’s speech felt too ‘positive’ to be an interesting news story—too hard to turn into something that foregrounds the media’s favourite themes: conflict, crisis and catastrophe? Could it be that some English-language media, wishing to pander to anti-China populism, may not want to write stories that will sit uncomfortably with their target readers? Could it even be that, while the Prime Minister wished to win Chinese votes in Hurstville, endear himself to various Chinese communities in Australia, and speak directly to China, he was at the same time quite happy about a relatively narrow range of media coverage, rather than risking alienating those who do not want to see Australia becoming more friendly with the PRC? Could it be that Morrison’s friendly remarks do not sit well within the current ‘Chinese influence’ narrative? Or did the majority of English-language media outlets simply blink that day?
One way or another, it seems that the apparent lack of newsworthiness of this event might embody the political challenges facing both parties in the forthcoming federal election. Both sides need to woo voters from Australia’s many Chinese communities, while not wanting to lose those voters who do not want to see the government getting too friendly with China. Once upon a time in the pre-digital age this was possible, but in the current era, where media content flows in uncontrollable ways and unpredictable directions, this could be a rather tricky strait to navigate.
Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. She currently leads an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, ‘Chinese-Language Digital/Social Media in Australia: Rethinking Soft Power’ (2018-2020).