An ABC news story, ‘Chinese media mocks Australia and Prime Minister in WeChat posts’, fails to mention a few key points, and as a result, is potentially misleading, even confusing.
The story cites a paper that makes a few claims. The first claim is that there has been a clear ‘anti-Liberal story coming from social media accounts that have close affiliations with the Chinese government’. The second is that these posts criticise Australia’s involvement in the Five Eyes alliance; the third is that there is little evidence in the posts of any attacks on Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.
The paper is presented at a conference ‘Safeguarding and countering the threats from espionage, foreign interference and terrorism’. This Safeguarding Australia Summit in Canberra also featured Clive Hamilton and a few other commentators from the security establishment.
Our research also focuses on the production, content and use of the Chinese-language media and social media among Australia’s Chinese-speaking communities. Our results do not contradict these key findings. In fact, we take these points as already given and widely known, and try to go beyond stating the obvious and attempt to understand how the discursive battles – between the ‘China influence/threat’ narrative and pro-China nationalist propaganda – impact on the Chinese-language media in Australia.
First, it is not just Chinese government-affiliated WeChat accounts that are critical of the Australian government, as the opening line of the ABC story says. Much of what is published within China – including material published by both the commercial media and the Party press, both social media and traditional media – is critical of the Australian government. One doesn’t have to do a content analysis for five months in order to know that Australia is currently not popular with China. If you mention Australia while visiting China – whether it be to an overworked taxi driver or a poorly-paid rural migrant factory worker – the response is almost always the same: ‘Why does Australia hate us so much?’
And why should anyone be surprised by this widespread anti-Australia sentiment – both official and non-official – after two years of the China influence/threat narrative from the Australian media, the security and defence establishments, and the current Coalition government – which clearly does not have a consistent narrative about China? What do you expect from Chinese propaganda, anyway? To be actively pro-Liberal? To be fair and balanced about an Australian government that has been at best conflicted about China, at worst positively hostile towards it?
The story also fails to mention a crucial fact: the so-called anti-Liberal bias is against the current Australian government, which at the moment happens to be a Liberal-National caretaker government. If the Labor Party were now in power and had behaved in the same way as the Coalition government has, then these same Chinese media outlets would be criticising Labor instead.
The concept of bias, as implied in the story, simply makes no sense at all. Would coverage of US politics that is critical of Trump be accused of displaying an ‘anti-Republican bias’?
By singling out government-affiliated sources, as the opening line of the story does, ABC’s story runs the risk of contributing to some kind of conspiracy theory that the Chinese government is secretly doing something to topple the Liberals. In fact, the story goes so far as to say that ‘it is possible that some of the anti-Liberal Government propaganda generated in China could be shared inside closed groups away from the scrutiny of researchers’.
Our ethnographic research so far suggests the opposite: we have identified many anti-Labor and pro-Liberal fake news reports and rumours within WeChat, some of which have already been exposed by the same journalists, and Labor is having a hard time undoing the damage.
So far, however, there has been no attempt, either by these researchers or by the media, to suggest that the Chinese government could be behind these pro-Liberal fake news reports and rumours. The only commentator who seems to have made this attempt is Clive Hamilton, who gave a speech at the same Safeguarding Australia Summit, stating that ‘Beijing has weaponised Chinese-language social media’. According to Hamilton, ‘accounts are being doctored and fake news stories are being spread to shape opinions in electorates with large diaspora populations’.
But hang on, aren’t these doctored accounts and fake news reports mostly aimed at helping the Liberals? So it seems that papers presented at this summit lead to the conclusion that the Chinese government is busy undermining both the Liberals and Labor.
However, things are clearly more complex than this. For instance, while there are several political candidates of Chinese heritage across the political spectrum who are currently active in Australian political life, only two Liberal candidates have been singled out and praised by China’s state television CCTV in recent months: Scott Yung in the NSW state election, and Gladys Liu, Liberal’s candidate for Chisholm in the forthcoming federal election.
As for the Australian media, the temptation to produce yet another story about China’s influence is simply too great. Months before the election was called, there was a clumsy attempt to link WeChat propaganda with the forthcoming election. This most recent ABC story is only a few steps away from saying that, one way or another, the Chinese government is trying to interfere in the election. So far, however, no one in the media has yet been able to make a convincing case for this.
Indeed, social media are providing a user-responsive milieu where Australian-Chinese voters can learn more about Australian politics and contest the range of real, quasi and fake news. WeChat, like Facebook, carries propaganda and truth, information and disinformation, reasoned opinion and unsubstantiated rant. As has been pointed out in a recent policy brief on WeChat, a sophisticated polity would welcome its educational role, while trying to minimise its capacity to facilitate the manipulation of sentiment.
If anything, the recent trends on Chinese-language social media in Australia challenge quite a few prevailing narratives, and provide opportunities to come up with more interesting analysis than simply to look for Beijing’s hidden hand. Would any journalists who are capable of taking on these opportunities please stand up?
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).