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It appears a significant proportion of Australia’s Chinese community feel the Australian media cover China within a narrow framework. EPA/Kanzaburo Fukuhara

Beyond the war of words: how might the Australian media’s coverage of China affect social cohesion?

The Australian government’s Public Diplomacy Strategy points to the importance of “diaspora diplomacy”. It promises to take steps to “engage diaspora communities drawing on their linguistic skills, social networks and cultural community connections”, by making active use of “online and social media as public diplomacy tools”.

Mandarin-speaking migrants now comprise Australia’s largest ethnic-language-speaking community. But if we take this community as an example, we can safely say Australia’s diaspora diplomacy efforts have already failed before they have even had a chance to start.

Australia’s Chinese community hasn’t been more alienated since Pauline Hanson’s first maiden speech 20 years ago than it is today. The failure to engage with the Chinese diaspora is all the more worrying given China is actively pursuing this group as a potential instrument of its own public diplomacy agenda.

A student migrant-driven media

My recently released report on Chinese-language media in Australia points to the emergence of an online Chinese media sector that is mostly run by student migrants.

These online media typically publish entertainment and soft news, and are not interested in simply being mouthpieces for China’s propaganda. Yet they tend to be staunchly nationalistic in favour of China on issues involving national pride, national sovereignty and territorial disputes.

This sentiment mostly surfaces in response to coverage of these issues by Australia’s mainstream media.

These student migrants had expected the Australian media to be more “objective” than Chinese propaganda. But they realise with disillusion and subsequent bitterness that when Australia and China clash over certain matters, the Australian media are equally dictated to by their own political and ideological agendas.

Recently, the editor of Sydney Today, the most-popular online Chinese-language news site in Australia, was angry to find that his words had been “distorted”, “exaggerated”, and “taken out of context” by a “certain journalist from an English-language newspaper in Australia”.

Sydney Today is the most popular online Chinese-language news site in Australia. Sydney Today

How the two countries’ media view one another

Pro-China sentiment ran high in the online Chinese community in response to Australian media coverage of the Rio Olympic Games. It responded to, for instance, The Daily Telegraph’s demonisation of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang and Channel Seven’s cultural insensitivity in its coverage of China.

On a more ongoing basis, it appears a significant proportion of the Chinese community feel the Australian media are greatly influenced by the US media and a Cold War mentality, and that they tend to cover China within a narrow framework. The recent drama involving Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s remarks on the South China Sea dispute to Chinese-language media reinforced this perception.

However, the tabloid media have no monopoly on journalism that peddles fear or panders to populist sentiment. Critiques of such narrative frameworks in the online Chinese media are much more visceral and less dispassionate., one of the most frequently visited Chinese-language sites in Australia, recently republished an article from China’s nationalistic paper the Global Times responding to an Australian Financial Review piece on China’s “citizen spies”.

After listing a number of points aimed at poking holes in the article’s logic, the Global Times article ends by asking, somewhat acerbically:

China spying on Australia? Why? Tell us, Australia, who do you think you are? What have you got in Australia that is remotely worth spying on, apart from the Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, clean air and killer ultra-violet sunshine?, one of the most frequently visited Chinese-language sites in Australia.

What does it mean for social cohesion?

At moments like this, people from the Chinese migrant community experience cultural anxiety and frustration. This may become a trigger for social disharmony.

Anti-Chinese hostility, channelled and fanned by the mainstream media, may fuel negative sentiments toward Australia on the part of Chinese migrants. Their consequent sense of grievance – sometimes expressed in emotionally charged terms – may incur further prejudice, even racism, against them.

This racism, as it is wont to do, operates indiscriminately. It targets all people of Chinese origin – be they from China or elsewhere, be they for or against the Chinese government.

All this has serious implications for social cohesion in Australia’s highly multicultural fabric. If this war of words between the two media sectors continues, there will be no winners – assuming Australia is serious about maintaining harmony.

More than ever, the biggest challenge centres on how to turn this tension into an opportunity for building a diverse, pluralistic and inclusive media environment.

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