The China Daily has a deal with Australian media to push its message Down Under, even as other Chinese papers call for a military strike on Australia. Is this just business as usual? Helen Clark reports from Perth.
The "Global Times" (GT), a subsidiary of the "People's Daily" and the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, recently opined that Australia is a paper cat unworthy of the more usual title of paper tiger. However, it didn't end there. "Australia's power means nothing compared to the security of China. If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike," the paper wrote.
This was in retaliation for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's vocal support of the result of the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration's finding against China over the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea that has interfered with Philippine fishing rights.
However, only a few months ago Bishop hosted Liu Qibao, head of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) central propaganda bureau. At the same time a deal was announced between the People's Daily and Fairfax Media. Each month "The Sydney Morning Herald," "The Age" and "The Australian Financial Review" will run an eight-page print-only liftout called China Watch. Sky News and the Australia China Research Institute, headed by former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr, also signed deals.
While this may come across as something of a conflicting strategy, it's not that far-fetched and is part of a new approach. "I think (foreign) reporters just love juicy quotes and GT is very good at that. China Daily, Xinhua and PD (the People's Daily) are boring in that regard... I think GT editors have good tabloid instinct and they are good at playing this game. Their semi-automomous status gives them 'plausible deniability,'" Peter Cai, a research fellow at Australian foreign policy think tank the Lowy Institute, told DW. Calling for a strike on Australian vessels in South China Sea waters certainly got coverage.
China's efforts in Australia
As a result, many media outlets, including some in the Fairfax stable, have run worried stories over the infiltration of Chinese propaganda. The "Financial Review" also pointed out that many Australian school children now learn more than just Mandarin paid for by Beijing, but also China's main political talking points.
Yet is Australia that important to Beijing, compared to the central importance Australia places on the relationship with its largest trade partner?
Propaganda efforts in Australia, it seems, are something of an afterthought for the superpower. "I would say that Australia is quite peripheral to China's regional and global concerns (just the opposite of Australia's view of China)," Professor David Shambaugh, a China expert with George Washington University, told DW.
Indeed, Peter Cai notes that China's efforts to push its message have a lot more money and manpower expended in the US and Africa.
The more pernicious influence of Beijing's propaganda department might not be its English-language posturing, but the influence it has over Chinese-language publications in Australia and its attempts to sway the large Chinese diaspora in its claims over the South China Sea.
"Beijing has extended its messaging control over almost all the Chinese-language media in Australia, Australian Chinese media sources say... as the government steps up efforts to filter what the Chinese diaspora consumes," wrote the "Sydney Morning Herald."
Broadly speaking, Australia views China favorably. According to a recent poll by the Lowy Institute, Australians rate most aspects of the relationship well and generally have positive feelings toward China, a trend that has been growing in recent years. "Strikingly, China now has a clear lead over Japan as Australia's best friend in Asia, which was not the case when we first asked this question two years ago," wrote the institute's director. However 74 percent are also in favor of Australian freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, a very serious sticking point for China.
"For cultural diplomacy in general, I think China is doing a poor job, unfortunately. So much more can be done, but the system is rigid and only produces low quality stuff. A pity," Associate Professor Dingding Chen from the University of Macau and non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, told DW.
Funnily enough, even the CPC agrees that its"propaganda sucks" according to The Shanghaiist, though that may be down to the fact that arts and letters are not considered Marxist enough.
Possibly the CPC should spend more time on studying entertainment rather than ideology. Then again, as Shambaugh notes, maybe they don't care. "They probably barely monitor it on that kind of investment-return basis and simply take out these ads because the budget is allocated and they are high-profile newspapers," said Shambaugh.