Cooler headlines must prevail in Australia-China debates 

Chinese Ambassador Cheng’s supposed ‘threat’ to ‘boycott’ Australian goods dominated newspaper headlines across Australia last week. I’d like to explain here why I thought those headlines pushed the ‘news’ too far.

The (Subjective) Facts

After reading various newspaper reports, I found my way to the source of the information: an interview by Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillett with Ambassador Cheng on 26 April. I poured over the interview looking for evidence of a government-directed ‘threat’.  I was unable to find anything. 

Instead, when pressed on the issue of whether ‘China could stop buying our iron ore and coal and gas and look elsewhere for it?’ and whether this would result in ‘a boycott of Australia?’, the Ambassador responded: ‘I don’t know. I hope not’. He also pointed out that the ‘Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed’ with how Australia is treating them, and that they ‘maybe’ would think twice about travelling to Australia for tourism or study, or buying our beef and wine.

The article subsequently published in the Australian Financial Review was headlined ‘Chinese consumer backlash looms over Morrison’s coronavirus probe’. This seemed to be an accurate headline for what had transpired, unlike the headlines in numerous other newspapers that followed, including the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Australia could lose billions from Chinese government boycott threat’.

The Chinese government is certainly capable of using economic tools to punish other countries for failing to act in accordance with its interests. We saw that most prominently when South Korea agreed to deploy a US anti-missile system in 2017. This resulted in huge losses to the South Korean economy, particularly in the tourism sector – helped by a Chinese state-backed media campaign that depicted Korea in a negative light.

But just because the Chinese government can and has used coercive tactics in the past, it doesn’t follow that they would have this time. The Ambassador certainly didn’t hold back on expressing his (and Beijing’s) dismay over Australia’s push for an inquiry into the source of the coronavirus. And perhaps he could have been more diplomatic in answering (or not) the series of Chinese consumer-related questions that Mr Tillett posed to him. 

In any case, all words are subject to interpretation by the reader, and I found the ‘judgement’ handed down to the Ambassador via headlines across the country too harsh. 

Reading between the lines 

Like those who assumed him to be ‘guilty as charged’ because of their understanding of Beijing’s actions in the past, there was also more to my assessment than the interview alone – relating to questions of motivation and freedom of choice. 

It is not clear, for example, that the Chinese government could prevent its citizens from studying overseas in their country of choice –  most students who find their way here do so via international education agencies, which are highly competitive, lightly regulated and scattered across the country. They could certainly reduce the number of China Scholarship Council scholarships available for students studying in Australia, but nowhere near to the level of the ‘billions’ in the Sydney Morning Herald headlines.

Moreover, by choking off this flow, Beijing would not only infuriate millions of potential students with life-long dreams of studying abroad. It would also shoot itself in the foot – since limiting the international education experiences of its youth would undermine its own drive for China to become a highly-skilled, high-tech, advanced economy. 

This leads to a point that is so often overlooked in Australia’s ‘China dependency’ discussions: they need us as much as we need them, perhaps even more so in some sectors. So even if they could punish Australia, would they? 

On the other hand, while I don’t presume to know how 1.4 billion Chinese people think, I do know that if I were Chinese and currently contemplating where I might travel or study in the world, I would seriously consider choosing somewhere other than Australia. If they were to believe both our press (and theirs), they could perhaps be forgiven for not travelling to a country that no longer describes them as a ‘true friend (as former prime minister Tony Abbott did not that long ago), but rather one that – in the press at least – increasingly depicts China as an adversary at best, an ‘enemy’ at worst.

I do not think the Chinese government is perfect by any means. The direction the country has taken in recent years under President Xi Jinping’s (now lifelong) term, has been both personally and professionally distressing. Witnessing the brutal suppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the clampdown on academic freedom are two cases in point. 

But nor do I think that Australians would be better off if we disengaged from our largest trading partner altogether – as some of China’s harshest critics would have us do. 

This is not only because the economic costs would be astronomical. It is also because, were we to disengage with all those countries whose Presidents we didn’t like, whose policies we objected to, or who occasionally threatened to punish others with the use of economic (or military) tools, our world would become very small indeed. 

The Australian government should not tolerate being told what to do by any other country, no matter how powerful they are. And nor should we blindly pursue economic interests to the neglect of security concerns. But in steering the right course for Australia’s future with China – one that is now fraught with complexities – surely we need cool, calm heads, as well as headlines, to deal with the facts as they present themselves, not as we wish or assume them to be.

This article is adapted by the author from her article published by the Canberra Times on May 4, 2020.

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