China Down Under

Taking its toll

How a chat with a taxi driver hints at tensions in Sino-Australian relations


“What is your country?” my taxi driver in Beijing asked me. “Australia,” I replied.

That was all the driver needed. Why is Australia so close to America? Why aren’t you more friendly towards China? And so it went on for about five minutes, with questions about various anti-China perfidies emanating from the West, including Australia.

Readers should be wary of any writer who lands in a foreign country and proceeds to rely on quotes from a taxi driver to reflect local sentiment.

Thomas Friedman, the storied New York Times columnist whose books on globalisation have made him a near household name, is often parodied for his liberal use of quotes from taxi drivers delivered on the way into town from the airport. It is a technique that is lazy and usually wrong.

But the fact that the taxi driver knew that China was running into problems with Australia – that it was becoming an “unfriendly” country, an ominous word in China – was on this occasion telling. The taxi driver wasn’t personally too fussed about Australia and certainly didn’t direct any animus at me. This was an issue between countries, he said, not between individuals. Still, the driver was a living, breathing embodiment of Beijing’s unhappiness with Australia. An ordinary Chinese citizen would usually have little knowledge about fluctuating relations with a country like Australia, a place which is not generally considered pivotal to Beijing’s global machinations.

That is, unless the local news had focused on the news from down under.

Local Chinese news, in turn, is controlled by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, which manages all information about countries likes Australia in line with the prevailing political diktats.

And the fact that Australia’s problems with China even register with your average Beijing taxi driver is a sure sign that China wants its displeasure known. (See my last column in WiC413 discussing one source of friction: Australian politicians attacking Chinese firm Huawei on national security grounds.)

Some of the negative news coverage about Australia has come in the official press, like the People’s Daily; some in a nastier form via the ruling party’s tabloid attack dog, the Global Times.

One article in the Global Times compared Australia to a leaf stuck on China’s shoe. Others have urged China to punish Australia economically for its behaviour.

If Beijing’s displeasure should then lead to fewer Chinese tourists and students going to Australia, then so be it. It is already encouraging such sentiment, by posting warnings on the internet that Australia is an unsafe country for Chinese nationals to study.

Never mind that this is not true. Australia has had no more incidents with students from China than other countries. But by spreading such misinformation, Beijing can then say any fall in the number of Chinese students going to Australia is consumer-driven.

To put it another way, Australia has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, and is now reaping the whirlwind.

The damage that results from a shift in popular perceptions about Australia, from a “friendly” nation, to an “unfriendly” one, is not necessarily permanent.

Take Japan, for example, which, even as bilateral relations have gingerly improved with China in recent years, is still subject to a relentlessly negative press, mainly about its wartime history. Despite this, a record number of Chinese tourists have continued to travel to Japan right through a lengthy period of frosty relations which started in 2012, with a rerun of a dispute in the East China Sea.

The Chinese visitors, of course, have been able to see for themselves that Japan and the Japanese are not quite the monsters sometimes portrayed in their local media.

Still, the unmistakable impression from any conversation in Beijing, be it with Chinese government officials or taxi drivers from the capital, is that Australia is stuck in the diplomatic deep freeze, with few signs of any thaw.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of books on Chinese politics and foreign policy, ‘The Party’ and ‘Asia’s Reckoning’.

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