There’s been a lot of stories about China in Australia’s news lately, on topics ranging from investment (Treasurer blocks sale to Chinese bidders) to trade and security (Joint study urges bold China-Australia treaty), and even international sport (Fury after Mack Horton defeats Sun Yang). A common thread is how deepening ties between nation states occasionally lead to breakouts of anxiety or tension.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. Our resource rich economy has complemented China’s labour-intensive one: it takes a third of our exports, and in return supplies 20 percent of our imports (mostly manufactured goods). Australia’s major security partner, however, is the United States. It’s this split between our political and economic destinies and where it could lead us – to a future characterised by hostility, or to a future characterised by interdependence and cooperation – that drives public debate over how best to engage with China.
An unqualified positive in the relationship has been international student exchange. Chinese students make up a huge percentage of international students studying here, creating tremendous opportunities for fostering collaboration, friendships and understanding across cultures. But recently, there’s been concern over Beijing’s donations to Australian universities and setting up of policy institutes. This piece from the China Digital Times summarises some of the recent commentary, including the Australian Financial Review’s instigating article (written by its China Commentator) which argued that China’s exercises in ‘soft power’ “appear like a concerted campaign to promote Beijing’s strategic interests in Australia through deals covering all the key areas of society”. The article continues in this vein:
“External propaganda” has been a major focus of the soft power efforts by Xi Jinping’s administration, which has allocated $10 billion a year for the cause, according to a report in the Financial Times. Recent deals struck between official Chinese media and several prominent Australian outlets raised concerns about whether the Australian media were doing the bidding of Chinese government propagandists in exchange for much-needed capital. But in the Diplomat, [former Prime Minister of New Zealand] Helen Clark argues that the threat to Australian media posed by Chinese soft power may only be theoretical, as the actual propaganda has little power to sway Australians’ thinking.
China’s desire to be understood abroad is understandable. The risk for Beijing is that unless such initiatives are entirely transparent and directed at fostering mutual understanding (as opposed to agenda setting or settling political disagreements in its favour), it may decrease Australians’ enthusiasm for deepening the relationship. In another piece the CDT one links to, University of Technology Sydney Professor Chongyi Feng is quoted as saying that Beijing’s likely goal is “to promote the ideology of the Communist Party to win the hearts and minds of the Australian people”. Perhaps Beijing has a far more powerful asset when it comes to promoting its image and interests abroad: its international students. Young, sophisticated, talented and dynamic, Chinese students are more likely to win hearts and minds – and through their presence alone, build the case for cooperation between our countries – than a hundred government-sponsored think tanks.