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China and Australia’s diplomatic spat will undermine cross-cultural empathy and understanding

Chinese and Australian flags
Source: David Gray, Reuters

Darcy French

It is midnight in Beijing. ABC Journalist Bill Birtles is preparing for bed when he hears a knock at the door. Opening it, he is shocked to discover seven officers from the Beijing Department of the National Security Bureau. Birtles is told he is a person of interest in a legal investigation and is forbidden from leaving the country. At the same time, 1,500 km further south in Shanghai, Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review is facing an eerily similar experience. Fearing for their safety, both men take shelter in Australian diplomatic missions. Five days later, they are back in Sydney.

What has followed in the week since these dramatic events would have seemed unfathomable only six months ago. In the shadow of a global pandemic, Sino-Australian diplomatic relations have sunk to an all-time low. The departure of Birtles and Smith means that there are no journalists working for Australian media organisations currently operating in China. This is a tragedy for the coverage of China-related topics in the Australian media. Not only will it undermine Australians’ exposure to Chinese culture and society, but it will also jeopardise the nuance of a national debate about our relationship with China that is more important now than at any point in the past 40 years.

Relations between the two countries soured when Australia took the unprecedented step of banning the use of Huawei technology in Australia’s 5G network. However, tensions that had been simmering away beneath the surface boiled over after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to China placing punitive trade barriers on Australian exports, such as barley and beef. More recently, China has threatened to target Australian wine with anti-dumping litigation at the World Trade Organisation.

However, the escalation of the past fortnight represents a new low. Now journalists have become the bargaining chips. Regardless of blame or culpability, both countries will suffer. Without quality reporting, there will be little to tie together the narratives of Chinese and Australian people in the 21st century. Without cultural understanding and shared stories, conflicts are more likely to emerge.

Australian Financial Review editor, Paul Bailey, articulated the importance of an Australian media presence in China during a recent interview for the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing:

“The China story is an amazing story, and it is our most important trading partner and we want to be able to tell that story from an Australian point of view ... China is this emerging power in the world and we want to be able to ... inform Australians about that relationship.”

Unfortunately, the current bilateral tensions are already occurring within a longer-term trend of harshening attitudes towards China. Negative views of China are largely the result of an increasingly polarised media discourse apace with a series of controversial international events.

Australians’ perceptions of China have been declining for several years, according to the Lowy Institute Poll. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of respondents trusting in China “to act responsibly in the world” declined from 52 per cent to 23 per cent. When asked in 2020 whether China is “more of an economic partner or more of a security threat to Australia”, 55 per cent of respondents said China was more of an economic partner, while 41 per cent thought it was more of a security threat. This can be compared to 2018, when only 12 per cent of respondents saw China as primarily a security threat, while 82 per cent viewed the state as more of an economic partner.

These statistics make clear that Australian attitudes towards China are increasingly sceptical. Undoubtedly, the quality and scope of media coverage plays a vital role in shaping how these views are formed and articulated, reinforcing the need for strong Australian media representation in China.

The departure of Birtles and Smith, as well as other journalists such as Chris Buckley, will likely exacerbate this trend. The majority of Australians will now experience China largely through the foreign media or Australia’s decidedly hawkish media behemoths, News Corp and Nine Entertainment. China’s targeting of Australian journalists, therefore, may end up as an own goal: harming its soft power and influence in Australia while reinforcing a growing trend towards scepticism and mistrust.

However, Australia is not entirely blameless for the situation it now finds itself in. The fragility of media freedoms in Australia enables the Chinese government to claim hypocrisy. Both Chinese and Australian media have reported on recent raids on the homes of Chinese journalists working in Australia. Although, at the time of writing, little is known about the facts of these cases. Similarly, Australia’s treatment of its own whistleblower journalists, such as Dan Oakes and Annika Smethurst, is a significant cause for concern. If the Australian Government wants to portray itself as a defender of media freedom, as Foreign Minister Marise Payne has attempted to do, then it must get its own house in order.

No matter how the current diplomatic stoush plays out, there is an urgent need for quality Australian reporting on China, our largest trading partner and a country that is reshaping the world. Engaging in tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists and other individuals will prolong and deepen this crisis, making it harder to rebuild relations on the other side.

For better or for worse, Australia and China have an important relationship. It is in the interests of all people in Australia, in China, and the broader Indo-Pacific region, to cultivate a productive, respectful and robust bilateral relationship. A crucial component of this is high-quality journalism, which serves as a window into the lived experiences of the Chinese people and their culture, politics, and economics. Without such journalism, most Australians will understand little about our regional neighbours and one of the world’s most fascinating countries. This would be a great shame.


Darcy French is in the second year of their dual master’s degree between Sciences Po in Paris and Peking University in Beijing.