Between watch dog and guard dog: the China threat and the Australian media

Dec 5, 2021
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What is the role of Australian media, especially news media, in shaping a sense of who we are as a nation, amidst talk of a Cold War with China?

How does the media produce public knowledge about a country that is increasingly imagined as its strategic enemy? This talk addresses these questions through the politics of voice, framing, and truth-claiming in journalism, and considers how the answers to these questions may impact on democracy and multicultural citizenship in Australia. 

Below is the text of the 2021 China in the World Annual Lecture, November 30, 2021

Watch the full video here:



Last month, Scott Morrison went to Glasgow, where he accidentally said it’s time to ‘tackle China’ – when he really meant to say it’s time to ‘tackle climate change’. This Freudian slip, which was only reported after Chinese social media had gone viral with it, is very telling. Is it possible that in the mind of our PM, China may be more of a threat to Australia than climate change? And, of course, like Peter Dutton, he wants Australia to know that he is tackling China not to win an election, but for the security of our nation.

So, as a media academic, I now have a new research question: how do the media produce knowledge about a country which is increasingly imagined as our national enemy? Is Australia’s public well-informed about China, or are we being drip-fed a Cold War rhetoric?

My talk today is my first step in thinking through these questions. I want to ask: What is the politics of the China threat narrative? How is truth established about the China threat? Whose voice counts in the media’s production of public knowledge about China?

I should warn you: I won’t be talking about bias, or the media’s tendency towards negative news. I have no problems with either biased or negative reporting. An unbiased journalist is a dead journalist. And if I want positive news, I can go straight to China’s biggest official news outlet, Xinhua. No, I’m talking about something else, something far more systematic and fundamental.

I should also say that today I’m talking about Australian media, not Chinese media – I’ve done plenty of that in my earlier work. And I’m focusing on news and current affairs content. My focus on news is deliberate. As the media scholar John Hartley argues, ‘News is the most important textual system in the world’. He also argues that journalism is the most ‘authoritative sense-making practice of modernity’. Which is why I find it curious that the ABC’s recent review of its China reporting made a decision not to focus on ‘day-to-day news events’.

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper, and in his 2019 Pen Lecture, he commented on the inability of the media industry to take on criticism. Journalism, he says, ‘might be the only industry in the world where being told you were wrong is taken as proof that you’re right’. When I heard this, I felt he’d taken the words out of my mouth. I was impressed with his capacity for self-criticism; this seems so rare in the media industry.

Jensen mentioned racism and Islamophobia, but didn’t mention Chinaphobia, so I was left wondering: if the media need to reflect on themselves, should this extend to their coverage of China? In other words, does reporting on an ‘enemy state’ exempt the media from accountability?

I’ll go on with this talk on the assumption that most of you agree with me that China coverage should not get an exemption from accountability, and we SHOULD talk about its power, its responsibility, and its accountability.

The Return of the Ultimate Other journalism 

From the start of China’s economic reforms until about a decade ago, Australia’s China narrative hinged on two themes – opportunity and threat. But in recent years, the opportunity trope has got lost in the China threat narrative.

So what explains this growing sense of threat? Well, the international relations scholar Pan Chengxin thinks that the West desires ‘ontological security’, but when this desire for certainty of identity is not met, it takes the shape of fear and anxiety. To put it simply: once upon a time, Australia knew its place in the world, and we had a clear sense of who ‘we’ are. America was our friend and ally; China was the ultimate Other. But China’s economic reform was evidence that the Other was becoming more like ‘us’, and that, along with this reform, it might democratize, becoming even more like us.

But then Xi Jinping took over and then made it clear that he is here to stay. China no longer wants to ‘lie low’, and it is not in a hurry to democratize. Now, China wants what the US has, and it wants it now. As David Goodman says: what China threatens is the supremacy of the US, not its sovereignty, democracy, and values. For Australia, what’s being threatened is certainty about whether we can continue to rely on the US, and if not, how we should position ourselves between the two big powers. Gradually, it seems our confidence about who we are as a nation is coming undone. This new uncertainty helps explain why China, once again, after a few decades of becoming more like us, is reverting to its original status as the ultimate Other.

Interestingly, Australia has been actually more pro-active than the US in fostering fear of China. As David Brophy observes, Australia hasn’t just been quick to sign up for a new cold war with China; they’ve been urging the US along the way to join that war.

Cold War journalism was born a few decades ago, but the Cold War mindset didn’t disappear when the Berlin Wall came down. Instead, it lies dormant, waiting to resurface in response to new situations. And we’re witnessing a renewal of it now.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a shift from so-called ‘objective’ journalism to what I call ‘adversarial journalism’. This brand of journalism is tailor-made for China, and has little to do with the media being the fourth-estate. It replaces ‘news values’ with ‘anti-CPC values’, and this agenda dictates what kinds of stories readers read, how these stories are told, and what conclusions readers should draw. The implicit assumption is that China is a hostile nation, so objectivity is no longer necessary. And since the West sees communism as patently evil, there’s no need to make any effort to understand it.

In media studies, a variety of canine metaphors are used to describe the relationship between the media and power elites. For example the media in liberal democracies are expected to function as a ‘watch dog’, scrutinizing the government and power elites on behalf of the public.

In contrast to the watch dog model, the ‘guard dog’ model sees the media performing as sentries, not for the community as a whole, but for powerful groups. In guard dog journalism, says media scholar George Donohue, the focus and approach of the news media are shaped according to who is being protected and who is defined as the threat.

What we see now is a curious co-existence of watch dog and guard dog. In reporting domestic politics, the watch dog is alive and alert. It takes on the PM, the ministers, and powerful institutions. But when it comes to the domestic politics of our China policy, the watch dog is missing in action. ‘Where’, asks Brophy, are the investigations of Australia’s decision-making about China? Where are the investigations into America’s behind-the-scenes pressure on Australia? Citing the example of the much-hyped spy story about Wang Liqiang, Brophy asks ‘Where is the accountability of media when stories like this come unstuck’?

But I think the most spectacular example of media having all power and no accountability is the joint ABC–Fairfax investigation into Chinese influence for Four Corners in 2017. Curiously, the ABC chose another episode of Four Corners for the review of its China content, and the 2017 episode was conspicuously left out.

And, as far as I see, the program is the defining moment when the quality of the nation’s ‘China influence’ journalism went seriously downhill.

The episode highlighted the problem of political donations in Australian politics. But it also made a range of claims which were not convincingly substantiated. The episode resulted in two defamation suits against the ABC/Fairfax. The ABC and Fairfax lost one defamation case, and settled in another. The litigant in the second case was a Chinese student, who said she was happy with the settlement, but she was bound by a non-disclosure clause.

But none of these problems reduced the negative impact the program had, and till today, this episode is widely credited with the introduction of Australia’s foreign interference legislation.

Pierre Bourdieu describes the process of imposing the norms of the powerful group on those of the subordinate group’ as ‘symbolic violence’. This violence is not physical, but can be just as injurious to those who have no resources to fight back. The episode has cast a long and dark shadow over our Chinese-Australian communities ever since, and the reputational damage to the individuals involved could be irreparable.

But the program has issued no retractions or corrections, let alone apologies towards any individuals.

When people complain to reporters about their stories, their response is usually, ‘You may not like it, but this is what we do’. But Jensen says this response is not good enough. His point is that media shouldn’t expect to have ‘all power but no responsibility’. And I want to add that it’s not good enough simply to say that we’re publishing a story in the public interest – as if the media had a monopoly over what counts as the public interest, or national interest for that matter.

Operating on this ‘guard dog’ model, the media are on standby to report on gratuitous remarks from backbenchers; to quote our security and intelligence agencies who issue yet another warning about China threat; and to give space to security analysts whose new reports raises ‘fresh concerns’ about China.

For those Chinese Australians, it seems the only legitimate voice is that of the dissidents. As Cheng Yangyang observes, ‘Regardless of your research direction and focus, you must say outright that you’re critical of China’s policy on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Unless you do that, you won’t be seen as credible’.

Cheng was speaking about what’s happening in the US, but the same logic is also playing itself out in Australia. A few people of my age have commented that this seems eerily similar to what was happening during the Cultural Revolution, when people were told to ‘biao tai’ to avoid persecution. Biao tai means something like, ‘declare which side you’re on’.

Giving voice to CPC critics and calling out China on human rights issue IS important, especially given that these voices are not allowed in China. But the media seem to forget that, between those dissidents and those who work for the CPC, there is a silent majority whose political views come in 50 shades of grey, even within the Mandarin-speaking community. And not everyone wants to be a card-carrying dissident.

The media typically don’t trust Chinese community organisations and their leaders, and suspect them of being linked to the United Front.

The media also don’t trust WeChat as a source of community sentiment, since it’s subject to censorship from China. And as for Chinese students, the media mostly portray them as a hot-head, angry mob or possible spies for the Chinese embassy.

Neither are China-born China scholars trusted. A couple of years ago, a security researcher in Melbourne wrote that Australian universities should only hire home grown political scientists working on China, rather than hiring people educated in China. At the moment, China born scientists are feeling the heat and scrutiny without knowing exactly what they have done wrong.

Given these attitudes, I’m wondering whether some Australians could take my talk today as evidence that, no matter how long I’ve been here, I’m still not one of ‘us’.

Many Chinese Australians feel they have no legitimate platform on which to speak, let alone talk back. A constant refrain on WeChat is that ‘we have no voice. I’m reminded here of Gayatri Spivak’s observation, ‘It’s not that the subaltern cannot speak. It’s that the colonial masters don’t want to listen’.

While the term ‘fifth column’ is mostly directed at Chinese Australians, language bullets such as ‘CPC agents’ are freely fired at any non-Chinese commentators and scholars who hold a complex position, and who dare to argue for critical engagement with China.

These days, the media amplify the fear of China threat, but seldom acknowledge the fear of people who are subjected to witch hunt. Media tell us that people both here and in China dare not speak up for fear of persecution by the CPC, but don’t mention that more and more self-censorship is being practised now by people here who fear the label of a Beijing apologist. Such politics of fear is familiar to people who lived through either the Cold War in the West or Cultural Revolution in China.

The issue of expertise 

Like climate change, understanding China requires specialized 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 of their chosen expert speaking as an uncontested authority. Too often, the same scholar is interviewed again and again – not necessarily because they’re the most qualified person, but because they’re willing to talk, and are likely to deliver the expected line.

Journalists complain that most China scholars don’t return their calls, but they seldom ask why. One China scholar said he doesn’t want to talk to the media because news about China no longer deals in facts. Now, it’s about ‘which side you’re on ’. Some scholars are worried about having their views taken out of context – or simply being left out, if what they say doesn’t fit the narrative being pushed. Worse still, some may worry they may be cited favourably in China’s state media, which in turn can be taken as evidence of their being a Beijing apologist.

But who are the experts? The word expert is banded about a lot, but China scholars and China watchers are different species. Most China watchers are current or former journalists. Many of them may know little about China, but as they present themselves as reasonable, cosmopolitan and knowledgeable, the public, who knows even less about China, sees no reason to doubt their words.

Respected China scholars take pains to qualify and substantiate their points. If they need to interview people, we have to go through the ethics committee. To publish their work, they have to go through a ruthless peer-review process.

In contrast, many China watchers are supremely confident and articulate. After a stint in 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. This is despite the fact that some are, to quote Keating, ‘all tip and no iceberg’ as far as their knowledge about China is concerned.

Some of you may say that the problem with China reporting is that media have too little knowledge about China, so we need to improve the media’s China literacy. But I don’t entirely agree. I’ve also seen some knowledgeable China scholars lending credibility to the China phobia discourse. I think that not knowing China is one thing; not wanting to know China is something else. In fact, not knowing anything makes it even easier, because you won’t have to deal with inconvenient knowledge.

Interestingly, these China watchers are often promoted to the status of experts. One China critic is now described in his own paper as the ‘global expert tracking the rise of China’. As one Chinese-Australian writer jokingly observes, ‘If you hurl a brick randomly, you can be sure to hit at least one or two China watchers’.

Truth-Telling in the China Threat Discourse

The security and intelligence establishment’s concern about the China threat is one thing. But establishing this threat in the public imagination requires the media to collaborate actively. The media also need to give the impression that their news stories are natural and logical rather than ideologically pre-determined, so readers believe that this is the only story worth telling, and there’s only one way of framing it.

A couple of years ago, a promotion campaign for The Sydney Morning Herald was plastered on buses and billboards. It said: In exposing Beijing’s ambitions, The Herald promises to ‘shine a light on hidden influences’, using ‘hard news to expose soft power’. In order to achieve this, The Herald also said, ‘We do whatever it takes to break the stories’.

Often, constructing the threat narrative involves using a wide range of ready-made tropes. These tropes can be mixed and matched to suit specific palates. If orientalism is too subtle for some readers, then try plain-old racism. Anti-communism always does the trick. For extra flavour, a touch of sensationalism never fails to work its magic. The tabloid’s approach is crude but effective: add a touch of yellow peril, a pinch of red scare, a tinge of green fear, and a hint of white supremacy, and stir.

But more often than not, establishing the dominance of the threat narrative needs some additional story-telling strategies.

The first is the artful use of headlines. I wrote an article for a paper about how China’s soft power effort in Australia is not really working, but the editor called it, “China’s soft power alive and well in Australia.’ Some China scholars have been horrified to find that editors have given their articles a misleading or more sensational title.

Second is the cherry-picking of facts: a recent 60 Minutes program on the possibility of war with China over Taiwan focused on Joe Biden’s gaffe about America’s commitment to Taiwan, but left out the White House’s later retraction of the statement.

Also, you can try using disclaimers. After a few defamation cases, journalists have realised that to accuse someone of being a spy or a foreign agent may land them in legal trouble. So some now take to saying, ‘This paper is not suggesting blah blah blah…’. But it then goes on to say things like, ‘Questions are being asked about so-and-so’s relationship with China…’, or ‘Concerns have been raised’.

In other words, insinuation often works. You could also imply that someone is dodgy because they’re in the same photo as a Chinese diplomat, or attended the same conference as a visiting CPC member. “Connected, linked, associated” are the operative words here.

And, oh, some advice for your production crew too. If you need some visual fodder, and if there’s no hard evidence and testimonies, try creating an eerie atmosphere, spooky music, dark silhouettes, fingers typing urgently on a keyboard, and a cinematic mise en-scene befitting a John le Carré novel.

These few tricks, working together, should allow you to dress up opinion as news, so that your news story actually works to promote someone’s opinion.

Like the story of the bogey man, the China threat has become a stock narrative: the details may change from day to day but the framework remains the same. Journalists may believe they’re pursuing the truth, and fighting a nasty regime. Fuelled by the ambition for a Walkley or moral self-righteousness, they search for scoops, and break new stories. But in reality, the story’s theme, angle, and plot are already written before they arrive on the scene – or even before they were born. Instead of the journalist writing the story, the story is waiting to write itself.

But above all, in lieu of investigative journalism, ‘access journalism’ has become the most popular game in town. This is a kind of reporting in which the journalist claims ‘exclusive access’ to some government agency, effectively operating as its mouthpiece. According to Peter Manning, formerly with the ABC’s Four Corners, access journalists usually report an allegation, and do not either prove or disprove the allegation.’ And they use evidence that is based on sources who ‘cannot be named’, and therefore cannot be verified. Manning says that access journalism mostly serves the agenda of only one side of any debate.

The big blind spot in our journalism in relation to China therefore leads to some curious paradoxes: for instance, when security and intelligence infringe on the media’s own freedom, the media are indignant. But when it comes to China, security experts become the media’s best friend.

Also, journalists usually privilege professionalism over patriotism. But when it comes to China, the media, politicians and the government join forces as ‘team Australia’. Also, our media regularly mock Xi Jinping’s monolithic China story, yet our own media’s China story is no less monolithic.

I want to stress that, although ABC news has largely failed to play a leadership role in shaping the direction of the debate, some of its radio shows have more depth and insight. Also, while news reporting in the commercial media is singled-minded in pursuing the China threat line, there is some diversity of opinion in these papers. I should also give kudos to the Press Club for hosting China’s deputy ambassador Wang Xining. This decision is a sign of confidence in the robustness of our democracy.

If you did a survey of Australian journalists about the standard of their media coverage of China over the years, you’d be likely to get a glowing report. There have been reviews of China coverage, but they were either internal, or were done by current or former journalists. Not surprisingly, they’ve given themselves a pat on the back. ‘Could do even better, but all is well. Nothing to see here’.

For Erik Jensen, these reviews would not pass the pub test. Jensen believes that such reviews should not be internal. He says they need to be ‘conducted with the assistance of people excluded from our industry, and in the presence of views that have been dismissed or overlooked’. And they need to be conducted by people ‘who’ don’t look like him.

News is not just about telling the truth; it is also a product; a commodity. It needs to sell. When market logic meets Cold War logic in response to China’s rise, the China threat narrative is inevitable. Selling raw emotions such as fear and anxiety about the Other is a God-sent business strategy for media organizations struggling to stay afloat in the era of Internet click culture.

Because of this, while I know some individual journalists are thoughtful and reflective, I’m pessimistic about journalism as an industry and institution. I hold a dim view about whether they’re capable of changing, or whether they want to change. But at least I think they should stop pretending that their China reporting still plays the role of the fourth estate. At a minimum, they should ask themselves: ‘Can we be truly democratic, if the principle of truth-telling is no longer applied evenly? Is it possible for Cold War journalism and liberal journalism to co-exist in one media system, and to have a one-country-two media practices?

I think if we can’t change how the media operate, at least we can change ourselves. Rather than hoping for more China literacy in our media, we – the Australian public – need to develop more media literacy. We need to educate ourselves about how the production of knowledge is bound up with unequal power relations. We need to watch the China watchers, and ask how and why they come to adopt certain positions. More importantly, we should find a way to let media know.

I believe China is too important to us, as a nation, for our media to get it wrong. Our country deserves better.

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