“Bad China” makes good news stories — but who benefits and who suffers?

Nov 15, 2022
Xi Jinping

Positive energy is in the air in anticipation of a possible meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and many are evidently encouraged by the positive vibes from the recent telephone conversation between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong.

But in public discourse, China is still depicted as Australia’s enemy — due, in part, to the ongoing conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, and in part to Australia’s international reputation as an ally of the US.

The fact that the China has become increasingly oppressive hasn’t helped matters either. As we learned from the recent Twentieth Party Congress, President Xi Jinping has secured another term for himself, ensuring that the country is set to become even more authoritarian under his tight reign. More than ever, China’s state media must toe the Party line, which may result in an even more defensive — as well as offensive — posture against nations whose media regularly criticise China.

Given all this, it begs the question of how Australia’s media produce knowledge about a country that is increasingly imagined as our national enemy.

Cold War journalism 2.0

Over the last decade, Australian media’s reporting on China has become ever more adversarial. Adversarial here refers to a kind of reporting that takes as given that the foreign country being reported on is a hostile nation. Such a perspective not only dictates what kinds of stories readers should hear and read about China, but it also dictates how these stories are told. In the field of journalism studies, this kind of adversarial journalism is often associated with the Cold War era or, in a contemporary context, with reporting on terrorist states and organisations.

Central to this form of reporting is what media scholars sometimes call a “Cold War mindedness”. According to Barbie Zelizer, Cold World journalism:

  • assumes the “unseen dimensions” of a war, even though that “war” may be an invisible or an imaginary one
  • adopts a particular view of geopolitical reality that relies on accepting certain strategic notions of enemy formation
  • reinforces certain understandings of who is “us” (the free world) and who is “them” (the authoritarian, the terrorist, the communist nation); and
  • reports the tension and conflict — the “imaginary war” — by portraying the enemy through discursive strategies such as “stereotypy, black-and-white thinking, polarisation, simplification, and demonisation.”

This shift to a Cold War journalistic style of reporting on China has to some extent resulted in the blurring of the boundary between fact and opinion, between evidence and hunch. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this type of journalism is “Power and Influence”, a 2017 episode of the ABC’s Four Corners program on Chinese influence. This episode can be seen as a defining moment in the Australian media’s construction of the China threat narrative.

A joint Four Corners and Fairfax/Nine Entertainment investigation, the episode purports to reveal how the Communist Party of China (CPC) is infiltrating Australia. It highlighted the problem of political donations in Australian politics — an issue worthy of an exposé in its own right. But the episode also made a range of claims against Chinese-Australian citizens and Chinese nationals that were not convincingly substantiated. In the absence of evidence, the program establishes “the truth” about Chinese influence through generous use of suspicions about possible links, insinuations about possible crimes, and speculations about covert activities.

For instance, a Canberra-based security academic, in response to the journalist’s question about Chinese-Australian philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing, said: “We have to assume that individuals like that have really deep, serious connections to the Chinese Communist Party.” While it was the prerogative of the individual interviewees to make statements as they saw fit, it fell to the journalist to press for clarification and substantiation. Yet, statements such as these were presented as self-evident, as if they warranted no further investigation or discussion.

The 2017 episode of Four Corners resulted in two defamation cases being filed against the ABC — one of which was successful, the other was settled out of court. Since then, the media have taken to the free use of disclaimers. Journalists have realised that to accuse someone of being a spy or a foreign agent without proof may land them in legal trouble. So some reporters now add qualifications such as, “This article is not suggesting …” but will go on to say things like, “Questions are being asked about Person X’s relationship with China …” or “Concerns have been raised …” Suggestive or insinuating if purposefully vague words like “connected”, “linked” or “associated” are likewise common in these media stories.

From the “watchdog” to the “guard dog”

Cold-War mindedness is one thing, but to promote and perpetuate such perspectives requires consistent work on the part of the media — especially in news and current affairs. The “agenda-setting” theory in journalism studies tells us that news media coverage influences the public’s perception of the importance of issues, both by what it includes and by what it excludes.

The role of the media in setting the agenda for public debate is certainly borne out in the case of the Australian media’s coverage of China and its construction of the China threat narrative. Take the example of the Sydney Morning Herald, which, on one of its promotional billboard slogans in 2019, said: “China’s growing influence: If Beijing’s ambition affects Australia’s future, you deserve to know.” In exposing Beijing’s ambitions, the Herald promises to “shine a light on hidden influences” using “hard news to expose soft power”. And in order to achieve this, the Herald promises to “do whatever it takes to break the stories”.

One noticeable consequence of having adopted such an agenda on China has been the growing reliance on certain sources — individuals and institutional spokespeople who, for a variety of reasons, see it as beneficial to consistently toe the China-threat line. This leads to what is called “access journalism”, a kind of reporting in which the journalist unwittingly plays the role of mouthpiece for some individual, or government agency, or other body to which she or he appears to have “exclusive access”.

What we see now is the curious co-existence of “watchdog” and “guard dog” models of journalism. In reporting on purely domestic politics, the watchdog is alive and alert: it takes on the politicians and the powerful institutions alike. But when it comes to investigating the domestic politics of our China policy, this watchdog has been missing in action. Operating on a guard dog model instead, for some years now the media have been on standby to report on gratuitous remarks about China made by the then Coalition government’s backbenchers; to quote security and intelligence agencies who issue yet another warning about the China threat; and to give space to security analysts in universities and think-tanks whose new reports always seem to raise “fresh concerns” about China.

The business community — particularly in the beef, wine, barley, seafood, and other export sectors — stands to suffer from the deteriorating relationship between Australia and China. Yet, although trade with China is a significant factor in ensuring Australia’s prosperity and the nation’s standard of living, criticisms of the China-threat narratives from the business sector have been mostly muted. Few dare to speak up, not wanting to be accused of putting economic interests above national security.

Experts, experts everywhere

Much like climate change, understanding China requires specialised knowledge. China is mostly beyond the expertise of the public, so journalists seek the views of China experts. But China experts have different ideological positions and come from different disciplines, and nobody from the China Studies community can speak on behalf of all. But too often, the media don’t reflect this internal difference. So the public gets the impression that their chosen expert is speaking as an uncontested authority. Too often, the same scholar is interviewed repeatedly — not necessarily because they’re the most qualified person, but because they’re willing to talk, and are likely to deliver the expected line that accords with the interests of the reporting.

Who, exactly, are the experts? The word “expert” is used a lot in China threat stories, but China scholars and China watchers are quite different species. China watchers tend to be current or former journalists. Many of them may know little about China, but they are often supremely confident and articulate. After a stint of reporting from China, they might claim to have found the “truth about China”, or to have divined the real intentions of the CPC or the inner thoughts of Xi Jinping. As they present themselves as reasonable, cosmopolitan, and knowledgeable, members of the public, who know even less about China, see no reason to doubt their words. A worrying tendency in the space of China reporting is that these China watchers are often promoted to the status of experts. One China critic is now described in his own newspaper as the “global expert tracking the rise of China”.

Equally worryingly, these China watchers, as well as run-of-the-mill journalists reporting on the China threat, themselves need to cite experts, but many favour experts from the fields of defence, intelligence, and security, who know little about China. It is indeed ironic that, while the media accuse the security and intelligence establishment of infringing on the media’s freedom in relation to certain issues in other contexts, when it comes to China the same establishment is the media’s best friend, and the latter’s reporting largely reproduces a security and intelligence perspective, with little, if any, interrogation of that perspective.

While the majority of people in the Chinese-Australian communities feel unfairly scrutinised and judged by the media, their voices are seldom included in mainstream China-threat media stories. In fact, the only voices from these communities that the media deem to be legitimate are those of the dissidents. Many community members feel that, regardless of one’s focus, one must say outright that they are critical of China’s policy on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Unless they do that, they are not likely to be seen as credible. To be sure, giving voice to critics of the Chinese government and calling out China on human rights issues is important, especially given that these voices are not allowed in China. But the Australian media seem to forget that, between these dissidents and those who work for the Chinese government, there is a silent majority whose political views come in fifty shades of grey, even within the Mandarin-speaking community. And not everyone wants to be a card-carrying dissident.

Many Chinese Australians feel they have no legitimate platforms on which to speak, let alone talk back. A constant refrain in WeChat discussions among Chinese Australians is that “we have no voice”. While the term “fifth column” is mostly directed at Chinese Australians, language bullets such as “CPC agents” are often freely fired at any non-Chinese commentators and scholars who hold a complex position, and who dare to argue for critical engagement with China.

Even as the media amplify the fear of a China threat, they seldom acknowledge the fear of those Chinese Australians who are subjected to witch-hunts. The media tell us that people both here and in China dare not speak up for fear of persecution by the CPC, but they don’t mention the fact Chinese Australians are now increasingly practicing self-censorship, out of fear of being labelled Beijing apologists. Such a politics of fear is familiar to people who lived through either the Cold War or the Cultural Revolution.

Framing China

Apart from asking about how the media set the agenda for public debate, we can also critically examine how China-related media stories are framed. In critical media studies, analysing the framing of a media story is important if we want to “draw attention to details of just how a communicative text exerts its power.” Frames enable journalists to process large amounts of information quickly and routinely — to recognise it as information, to assign it to their cognitive categories, and to package it for efficient relay to their audiences.

In the context of the Australian media’s framing of China-related issues, we can see that journalists’ choice of issues, sources, and language determines what we see and how we see it, and what continues to be unseen or ignored. In this sense, framing can be achieved by using certain words, phrases, pictures, and emphasis, or simply by omission. Through a range of framing devices, the Australian media contribute to public debate about China, not only by presenting the aspects of China they think we should talk about, but also by shaping how these aspects will be discussed.

To push the China-threat agenda means consistently framing China-related issues by emphasising certain elements of any given China-related issue above others, thereby defining “the problem”, diagnosing its causes, making moral judgments, and even suggesting remedies — all according to an institutional agenda of reporting on China. Therefore, to examine and identify the China threat discourse, we need to look for the presence or absence of certain keywords, stock phrases, stereotyped images, sources of information, and sentences that provide thematically reinforcing clusters of facts or judgments.

The first of these framing strategies is the use of words or phrases that carry certain connotations. The second is the choice of labels to define a figure, an event, or a situation. Both devices are amply illustrated in how the Australian media interpreted a particular statement from the Chinese government.

When Labor won the 2022 federal election, and after the first meeting between the new Labor Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, and her Chinese counterpart, the Chinese ministry issued a carefully crafted statement containing four vaguely worded points that could be taken as either advice, or as principles that both sides should adhere to. Seasoned Australian diplomats experienced in dealing with China considered the statement to be positive and conciliatory. But it was interpreted by many in the Australian media as problematic and concerning. The key to this interpretation was the choice of the word “demand” to frame the four points raised in the statement. For example, an ABC story asserted: “Mr. Wang has made four general demands of the new government”. The use of this word over other possible options — such as “proposed principles” or “suggestions” — led the media angle to congeal around one familiar pre-existing theme: China is again lecturing us and is trying to dictate the terms and conditions of the bilateral relationship.

The third framing strategy is the deliberate choice of sources and experts who are known to espouse certain angles and perspectives in relation to China, and the omission of others. Journalists who resort to exclusive access to certain sources mostly serve the agenda of only one side of any debate. As I have already said, this “access journalism” is a favoured strategy for journalists who claim to have an exceptionally close relationship with security establishments, hawkish politicians, and think-tanks that advocate de-coupling from China.

In his recent paper on the “Securitization of ‘Chinese Influence’ in Australia”, Andrew Chubb writes that he believes the national security bureaucracy was working in a “coalition with the media”. He points out that a number of prominent journalists were:

“highly receptive to securitizing moves from officials. Once convinced of the threat, they became active securitizers, driving threat perceptions downward and outward to mass audiences.”

We see many instances in which the two parties indeed work in tandem. Sometimes, this can take the form of being tipped off by security and intelligence. For instance, Hamish McDonald mused sarcastically about a Melbourne-based reporter who “just happened to be outside Moselmane’s home at 6.30am along with a crew from Nine’s 60 Minutes as the raid occurred.”

The fourth device is the use of sensational and often misleading headlines. In 2017, I wrote an article about the danger of the Australian media’s sensational narrative about China’s soft power in creating fear and anxiety about various Chinese communities, but the editor’s headline read “China’s soft power alive and well in Australia”. Some China scholars have been horrified to find that editors have given their articles misleading or more sensational titles.

The fifth device is to put words into the mouth of an interviewee. This can be demonstrated by a barrage of media stories about how the new Labor Prime Minister responded to China’s so-called “demands”. In response to a journalist’s question about China’s “demands”, a number of media outlets (from the left and the right) reported Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as saying, “Australia does not respond to demands.” Regardless of whether Albanese believed that the four points actually were demands, his response became a new development in the “demand” narrative. He was effectively “verballed” by journalists.

The sixth framing strategy — and perhaps the one that is deployed most often — is sometimes referred to as “cherry-picking”. Journalists or editors select and amplify facts or evidence that support a particular view, but leave out inconvenient or contradictory information. Geoff Raby, a former ambassador to China and one of the people who appeared in the 2017 Four Corners episode, lamented that there was no attempt at balance on the part of the journalists who made the episode. He was interviewed for fifty minutes for the program, but only two minutes of this went to air, whereas “those who had tales of dark webs being spun in Australia by the Chinese Communist Party” were given plenty of airtime. This led him to argue that “the views of an informed observer, providing context and a degree of balance, were left on the ABC’s cutting-room floor.”

Seventh, and finally, an examination of framing can never ignore the numerous ways in which audio-visual images work together with the spoken or written word to encourage certain kinds of interpretation. For example, as the episode of Four Corners shows, suspicion of clandestine activities can be raised by the use of ominous music, dark silhouettes, and a cinematic mise-en-scène more befitting a John le Carré novel set in the Cold War era than a serious news documentary.

Power without responsibility

The China-threat discourse is often justified as being in the public interest and the national interest, but the notion of who “the public” is, and questions about what constitutes the national interest, are contested. The media seldom ask politicians and security experts questions about who stands to benefit from the China-threat discourse and who stands to suffer from it.

For instance, discourses of foreign influence have proved to have devastating consequences for Australian citizens of Chinese origin — especially those from mainland China. These consequences manifest themselves in at least two ways. First, even though these Chinese Australians are Australian citizens, their bodies carry their foreignness with them. Repeated media stories casting aspersions on them, hinting at links they may have with the Chinese government as potential agents of interference and influence in Australia’s politics, media, and foreign policy, have led to people in this community becoming objects of distrust, suspicion, and sometimes racist violence, and their loyalty to Australia has been openly questioned. This is bad news indeed for social cohesion.

Second, and equally worrying, is the possibility that media discourses of China’s influence have pushed many ethnic Chinese to identify more forcefully with China and pro-China nationalism. However, despite the negative effects that such Cold War journalism may have on Chinese Australians, the economy, and social cohesion, there is a lack of recognition in the media that along with the power of the media comes the responsibility to report in the public interest, to adhere to professional codes of conduct, abide by journalistic ethics and the law, listen to the voices of the public, and ultimately to demonstrate a professional commitment to being held accountable to the public. Sadly, such a willingness to take responsibility is often missing. “Where”, for instance, asks David Brophy, “are the investigations into Australian decision-making on China, or the role of American pressure behind the scenes?”

The 2017 episode of Four Corners is widely credited with the introduction of Australia’s foreign interference legislation. It has cast a long and dark shadow over the Chinese-Australian communities ever since, and the reputational damage to the individuals involved could be irreparable. Reporting such as that undertaken in this program represents a form of “internal othering” — a discursive disenfranchisement of Chinese-speaking communities in Australia.

While the media tend to focus on human rights violations that are happening in China, the human and citizen’s rights of Chinese Australians are downplayed. By imagining them mostly in the role of agents of the Chinese government, or by casting doubt on their political allegiances, the media often reduce them to individuals without any cultural, emotional, or cognitive conflicts and ambivalence. The logic is clear: you are either with us or against us.

With a new federal government now firmly installed in Canberra, we have begun to witness a retreat from the use of megaphone diplomacy that had characterised the previous government’s dealings with China. However, for there to be real and sustainable improvement, serious self-reflection is needed on the part of the media about its journalistic practices, its ideological positions, and its role in shaping public knowledge about a country that is increasingly crucial to Australia’s national interest. The Australian public deserves better.


This article was first posted by the ABC,14 November 2022

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