Beyond good and evil: The mainstream media and stable relations with China

Dec 11, 2023
The Newspapers section in the library at Customs House building, Circular Quay. Sydney, Australia.

By going beyond the good and evil binary, the Australian media could play a more constructive role in fostering enduring stability between Australia and China, delineating a path that maintains Australia’s safety and integrity.

China, undeniably a significant actor on the global stage, is a nation with which Australia not only can but should seek coexistence and maintain a stable working relationship as part of an increasingly multipolar world order. Recognising that some differences may be irreconcilable, there remains ample room for cooperation.

Since mid-2022, after the Labour Party’s rise to power, initiatives by both Canberra and Beijing have mitigated the previously deteriorating trajectory, ushering in a more stable working relationship. Despite the absence of fundamental shifts in Australia’s China policy, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent diplomatic sojourn to China has indeed furthered auspicious indications. Following the visit, the dynamics of the Australia-China relationship have seemingly reached a new-found mutually accepted balance. Yet, this fragile relationship could inadvertently drift into unintended situations without careful management.

The role Australian mainstream media will play in this still-evolving relationship may be crucial.

That this role has been overlooked may be attributed partly to the common perception that faults lie in China’s actions rather than in Australia’s domestic rhetoric. This is only partly true. The enduring media depiction of China as the quintessential ‘Other’—a threat entrenched in the discourse affecting Australia’s security and values—is, in fact, consistent throughout Australia’s domestic discourse. Notwithstanding the frequent coverage of China and the Chinese-Australian diaspora by the Australian media in recent years, narratives have tended to depict the Sino-Australian relationship as a binary conflict between good and evil, compounded by some ‘inconveniences’ such as bilateral economic ties and the presence of Chinese communities in Australia.

It is conceivable that the Australian media could play a more constructive role in fostering enduring stability between Australia and China, delineating a path that maintains Australia’s integrity without conceding to real or perceived pressures from Beijing.

In the past, sensationalist media narratives routinely took China as the ‘Other’, creating an unwarranted urgency. Among them, there was a trend of evidence-free journalism suggesting an imminent Chinese attack on Australia without tangible proof. Some journalists routinely interpret China’s military readiness and exercises as preparatory steps for warfare, although such activities are often unrelated to Australia or are part of regular operations. This trend has skewed perceptions to the extent that, as the 2022 Lowy Institute public opinion poll found, a more significant proportion of Australians anticipated an attack by China than did the people of Taiwan. China’s assertive policies certainly played a role in moulding opinion, but the prevalent discourse and alarmism also greatly influenced sentiment.

A particularly egregious more recent instance was the ‘Red Alert’ series published in the Fairfax media in March 2023, which predicted on very shaky grounds that Australia could be embroiled in a war with China within three years, purporting to detail the initial 72-hour conflict timeline. They even dramatised a scenario whereby, following an outbreak of war over Taiwan, Australia would be subjected to Chinese missile strikes and crippling cyberattacks, marking the first assault on Australian soil since WWII. At the same time, American forces would ostensibly converge on Australia’s Top End.

Despite the continuous advancement of China’s Military Modernisation program and its intention, there remains a significant journey before China can seriously challenge the US and its alliance or become the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific, much less manifest its power projection capabilities. On the contrary, the real challenge for Australia lies in navigating the delicate balance of interests between Australia and the US—essentially, to ‘right-size’ its relationship with the US.

Considering the geostrategic environment, Australia ranks as one of the world’s safest countries. Among other factors, the vast distances—a sprawling 4,000 kilometres between Australia’s northern maritime frontier and China’s southernmost Hainan province, and more than 7,500 kilometres from Sydney to major cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou—further diminish the likelihood of direct military encounter.

Considering also China’s dependence on Australian raw materials for its ongoing development—even if this has recently slowed, it is not strategically sustainable for Beijing to employ economic sanctions that could inflict reciprocal harm. These two economies are not just interdependent; they are, in essence, complementary. While the media frequently spotlight China’s economic prowess and enduring influence over Australia and regional geopolitics, they seldom acknowledge its vulnerability and its reliance on Australia. This nuance partially accounts for the failure or limited success of Beijing’s stringent economic sanctions against Australia.

Crucially, the media’s representation could also influence the breadth of debate within Australia on the nature of China-Australia relations. Many prominent scholars in China-Australia relations who diverge from the mainstream are disparaged as either the ‘China Lobby’ or ‘misinformed.’ Australians who present alternative perspectives on China are routinely sidelined and subjected to personal attacks online and in various forums, especially those who have Chinese affiliations or heritage.

When the media routinely portrays China as the ‘Other’—a threat entrenched in the discourse affecting Australia’s security and values and disproportionately amplifying the imminent threat, there is a danger of neglecting the positive economic activities and people-to-people relations that should also inform Australia’s approach to that country. Persisting with this trajectory risks an unending erosion of Sino-Australian relations, potentially squandering opportunities for Australia to benefit from closer engagement.

An inclusive attitude to Australians of Chinese heritage is also essential to the nation’s societal and democratic health. A comprehensive study by Wanning Sun of UTS published in August 2023 revealed that while Chinese Australians generally placed more trust in Australian media over Chinese state media, many were concerned about a lack of balance, depth, and independence in English-language media reports on China—a concern that warrants serious attention by itself.

Like every nation in the world, Australia has the sovereign right and responsibility to defend itself and enabling a more nuanced media narrative on China could be a significant step for Australia in pursuing its national interests, forging its path, and protecting its sovereignty.

 

Read more articles in our China Perspectives series:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

 

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