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China’s Image Problem

By Justin Elliott

Australia’s growing concern with Chinese influence in Australian affairs is exemplary of the problem China faces with its international image, one that the Chinese government appears reluctant to address.

China, it can be said, ranks high in economics. It has the second-largest economy by GDP of any country. By purchasing power parity, it ranks first. Since China began to liberalize its economy in the 1980’s under Deng Xiaoping, it has delivered remarkably consistent economic growth. Though slowing in recent years, it still continues to grow at an impressive rate, with analyses for 2017 suggesting growth of 6.9% (although the accuracy of this figure and its value as an indicator are somewhat contested). On this index at least, China has made it, or is at least well on the way to making it as a moderately prosperous society.

Like many countries, Australia has benefited greatly from China’s sizeable economic expansion and growing middle class. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost a quarter of Australia’s trade, and helped Australia weather the global financial crisis . Recently, economic ties were deepened further with the conclusion of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Clearly, China plays a prominent role in Australia’s economy, and yet in spite of this, the relationship could hardly be described as close, with numerous incidents causing Australians to question the value and consequences of a closer relationship with China. For although China and Australia have significant economic linkages, there is more to a strong relationship than cold hard cash.

In the past few years, Australia has been rocked by a slew of revelations that paint a decidedly unflattering portrait of China in the Australian imagination. In 2017, the Chinese-born Sydney University of Technology scholar Feng Chongyi was unofficially detained for questioning in China over concerns voiced by Chinese authorities that his meetings with human rights lawyers threatened national security. Though he was eventually released, no further detail was provided on why an international scholar posed a threat to Chinese national security, leading some, like the head of the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College Rory Medcalf, to interpret Feng’s delayed return to Australia as a blunt “signal of intimidation to Chinese Australians not to criticise Communist party interference in Australian domestic affairs” – a frequent concern voiced by Professor Feng.

After a week-long detention in China, Professor Feng was greeted at the airport in Sydney.

On the domestic front, former high-profile senator Sam Dastyari resigned after being embroiled in a number of scandals involving Chinese influence, including accepting funds from individuals and companies linked to the Chinese government and endorsing China’s stance on the South China Sea over his own party’s position. These revelations formed part of a wider media investigation of Chinese-linked donations to Australian political parties, which helped galvanise the government into introducing legislation intended to curb undue foreign interference.

Perfectly encapsulating this ongoing debate, two opposing open letters from two groups of Chinese scholars were published in response to the proposed government legislation. The first contends that, although instances of interference should rightfully elicit concern and scrutiny, there was currently “no evidence … that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising [Australia’s] sovereignty”. Evidence, they suggest, was often lacking context and promoted conspiracy theories with racial undertones. Undoubtedly, this is a legitimate concern, especially given Australia’s chequered history of race relations. The second group, of which Feng Chongyi is a member, agrees with this concern, but also believes “that some of the CCP’s activities constitute unacceptable interference in Australian society and politics. We believe these have in a number of instances sought to restrict personal freedoms, impede democratic processes and affect national security, with the potential to harm Australia’s interests and sovereignty.” Clearly, there is growing if still contested concern on the influence of China in Australian society.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese response to the unfolding events has been dismissive. The Chinese Embassy in Australia issued a statement in response to the media’s recent portrayal of China (which prompted the proposed legislation), asserting that the reports “were made up out of thin air” and contributed to racial hysteria against Chinese Australians. In addition, politicians and government officials had made “irresponsible” remarks, damaging US-China relations, and that Australia needed to view the bilateral relationship “in an objective, fair and rational manner”. As pointed out by ANU scholar Rory Medcalf, such language is unlikely to help dispel negative images of the Chinese government in Australia.

In any event, China will likely have to respond to more of these accusations in the future. Other countries like New Zealand, Germany, and the US are also beginning to question Chinese influence, and as China increases in stature around the world, it is only natural that others will pay more attention to its actions. China’s strong economy and rich cultural heritage are no doubt alluring soft power traits, but simply dismissing concerns as irrational does nothing to burnish China’s soft power and image abroad, no matter how attractive that image may be.

(Justin Elliott is a USCNPM contributor based in Melbourne, Australia.)