Public trust in China as a responsible international player has declined dramatically according to the Lowy Institute’s annual poll released this week. The reasons for this are not hard to find since there has been ongoing anti-China propaganda in the media over the last year. Just as the orators in C.P. Cavafy’s 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” whipped up the good people of their city into tremulous expectation and dread that the “barbarians” were about to enter their gates, Australians have fallen for the line they have been fed. For the wordsmiths, the defence and security analysts, it has been “a solution of sorts.”
In the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, in answer to a question as to whether they trusted certain countries to act responsibly in the world, 55 percent said that they trusted the United States “totally” or “somewhat” and 52 percent trusted the People’s Republic of China. In the 2019 poll, trust in the US slid slightly to 52 percent, while trust in the PRC plummeted dramatically to 32 percent.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison prepares to meet the leaders of both countries this weekend in the Osaka G20, it seems he accepts this public opinion trend. In an address to Asialink on 26 June, Morrison acknowledged that two-way trade with China totalled $215 billion in 2018 and that wide-ranging cooperation extended across health, education, taxation and even action against drug trafficking, and flagged the establishment of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, which is tasked with raising the bilateral relationship to a new level. However, in the main part of his speech, he clearly sided with the US Administration on its trade dispute with China. He stressed that the US had legitimate concerns that China was not abiding by the rules-based trading system. He instanced “forced technology transfer,” “intellectual property theft” and “industrial subsidies… promoting over-production,” all allegations that have been canvassed widely in Washington although also disputed by a number of informed analysts such as Stephen Roach of Yale University Jackson Institute of Global Affairs.
The setting out of these trade issues will be welcome in the US but probably carry less weight with the Australian public and probably had little influence on the results of the Lowy Poll. Lowy’s own analysis highlights public concerns about Chinese investment, its human rights record and its system of government and my own “taxi driver” barometer reinforces this view. The question is where these ideas come from? They did not spring out of thin air. It is quite possible that there is a campaign of disinformation going on. I myself constantly encounter a widespread belief that Chinese government and Party-backed companies are systematically buying up businesses, land and property and will soon virtually own the whole country, which is blatantly untrue. In fact, China is our ninth largest investor, with less than two percent of total foreign investment, but this nonsense belief still persists.
On the other hand, human rights in China are a matter for legitimate concern, but again I doubt that they are a burning issue for the general public. The Uighur Australian community is small. It is most concerned about the persecution being carried out in China’s far west Xinjiang Province but has not managed to garner wide public support for action by Canberra. The Falungong presence in Australian cities is visible, particularly near Chinese official consulates and offices. Most people seem bemused but unmoved by the belligerence of its adherents. This month’s protests in Hong Kong have indeed seized the public’s attention but they were not relevant to the Poll, since it was conducted three months earlier, in March.
Despite our increasing cultural engagement with China, despite the growing Chinese Australian community and its contributions to our public life, despite the benefits of our bilateral trade and investment relations, Australians have somehow been pushed back into a Cold War “Reds under the beds” hysteria where “Communism” is a word of fear, combined with a resurgence of the “Yellow Peril.” The Lowy Poll shows this clearly. The most vocal merchants of the “China scare” propaganda are the Defence and security lobbies in Canberra, and they take their lead from Washington. In the run-up to the next US Presidential election, how convenient it is for the incumbent candidate to have a foreign threat, a looming crisis and a “barbarian invasion”. This is Cavafy’s “solution of sorts.” Unfortunately, not only American but also Australian citizens are increasingly agitated and apprehensive. The Poll suggests that we are mostly ready to support our Prime Minister if he wishes to shore up the ANZUS Treaty and take the US side in its dispute with China.
In this situation, Canberra will need more than the new Foundation for Australia-China Relations if it really wishes to strengthen bilateral relations.
Jocelyn Chey, a former senior diplomat, is Visiting Professor, University of Sydney, and Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University.