Chinese influence in Australia is growing across a broad front, from political donations to Confucius Institute teachings in primary schools and university institutes funded from Beijing. These continuing efforts to spread soft power have found a new friend, with an announcement that content from Chinese newspapers and wires will run in Australian media and on the Sky TV cable television channel.
China Watch is a monthly eight page lift-out that will run in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Australian Financial Review. It is prepared by China Daily, the English language paper run by the Communist Party that explains China and government policy to foreigners.
The arrangement has gained plenty of critics including Media Watch, shown by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which suggested times are so tough for Fairfax (which announced yet another round of job cuts in early May) that the company “agreed to take money from the Chinese for spreading their propaganda.”
Nor is it the first such agreement between Chinese media and Australian media; Sky News has a deal with the People's Daily and Xinhua with the Australia-China Relations Institute, headed by former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr.
It is not even the first agreement between Fairfax and a foreign news agency looking for purchasable soft power. The Age's Green Guide, a green-hued weekly TV guide, featured a multi page special on Russia over Christmas, and has been doing so on and off for some time. Russia Beyond the Headlines, like China Watch, is a government-run effort that appears in newspapers around the world.
The current deal was concluded when the head of the Central Propaganda Bureau of the CCP, Liu Qibao, was a guest of the government and signed contracts with Australian media companies.
Not everyone is convinced of pernicious influence. Dingding Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Macau and non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, told Asia Sentinel “this sort of soft power efforts (sic) are very limited for several reasons. First... as few people would read it anyway. Second, China Daily is not that high quality in terms of story-telling.” He also pointed out that both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had their own China Watch deals, to limited success or attention.
While Fairfax’s China Watch feature is limited to a paper lift-out both the WSJ’s and the WP’s editions can be seen online. The content is largely boilerplate communist tropes: celebrating culture, reporting on the President’s welcome in Washington, and bellicose railing against arbitration in the South China Sea or Freedom of Navigation Patrols.
Australians more generally do not think deeply about Chinese ‘propaganda’ or its soft power. China is largely seen in economic terms (two way trade is at A$670 billion or €430 billion) and worries center on Chinese ownership of land, both big parcels of it or of wealthy individuals ‘buying up’ Australian real estate and driving prices up. According to a 2015 Lowy Institute poll around 15 percent of Australians see China as a military threat; 77 percent see it as an economic partner.
Rory Medcalf, of the National Security College at the Australian National University (ANU) told the AFR, “The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations.”
Australia’s recent Defense White Paper uses the term “rules-based order” over 50 times and strongly dresses down recent Chinese actions without mentioning the nation by name. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, generally something of a Sinophile, mentioned Chinese aggression in his first interview as PM. All of this, and Australia’s alliance with the US, is carefully watched by Beijing.
The front page of the first liftout (see here) is less concerned with sovereignty than opportunities for trade and the kind of cheerleading for the China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) one generally hears from the Australian government. It is not dissimilar to the speeches given by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on his recent visit to China, largely to talk up trade and the friendly history between Australia and China.
The ChAFTA has been one of the coups of the current government and took 10 years of negotiations. As Australia’s mining boom slows the government hopes economic transition will come in the form of exporting agricultural goods and varied services to China. This is still the basis for the relationship with China, even as geostrategic concerns slowly grow.
Wang Hui, deputy editor-in-chief of the Asia-Pacific edition of China Daily, wrote that as ties grow Australians want more information on China. However, “Australian media, as part of the Western media world, have often harbored a bias against developing countries, China included.” Allegations of bias and ‘incorrect information’ are old gripes, but something China has only begun to correct internationally in the past decade.
The South China Morning Post wrote in 2009, “The central government is preparing to spend 45 billion yuan (US$6.8 billion at current rates) on the overseas expansion of its main media organizations in an aggressive global drive to improve the country's image internationally.”
Australian broadcasters and newspapers have been dressed down by the Chinese government before. This correspondent reported on an ABC Foreign Correspondent program that Chinese censors tried to have pulled in 2014, given its “sensitive” subject matter of the Uighur ethnic group in China. They were not successful.
Australia is not the only country where China Daily is on the charm offensive. During Xi Jinping’s April trip to Washington, students apparently fanned out across the capital, handing out copies of the China Daily. Some students apparently noted it could be hard to give the papers away.
In the end the question is not so much whether China is now buying up pieces of intellectual real estate in Australia in the form of paid-for newspaper features, but how well this charm offensive works. Dingding Chen suggested not. “For cultural diplomacy in general, I think China is doing a poor job unfortunately. So much more can be done, but the system is rigid and only produces low quality stuff.”
Then again, that same 2015 Lowy poll found that most Australians do not know who Xi Jinping is. Should anyone read China Watch they will at least get a fair idea quickly.