Our sales manager pulled me aside with a worried look and more bad news. “They are being harassed by the Ministry of State Security,” he said of the Beijing-based immigration agency that has been advertising in the Chinese-language media we produce here in Australia. My heart sank. Yet another long-term customer gone.
The immigration agent had been a loyal client, with us for three years, and enjoyed constant interest from readers eager to learn of his services. Now we had been informed that officials visited his Beijing office last month. His staff thought they were fraudsters and called the local police to throw them out. The police confirmed the visitors’ identities as agents of the Ministry of State Security, the agency in charge of counter-intelligence and political security. The immigration agent was forced to pull his advertisement from an “anti-China” newspaper. In other words, Vision China Times, where I am editor-in-chief.
Our lost client illustrates but one of the mounting pressures faced by independent Chinese media in Australia. Tensions have heightened over recent months, with Australia’s Chinese media under pressure to support President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s foreign policy. That pressure is part of China’s exercise in “soft power”.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of Chinese-language media in Australia. The first consists of those that rely on the Chinese government and Chinese commercial ties for revenue. These outlets tend to echo and take their cues from state-run mouthpieces. The second group consists of media directed by religious groups aiming to expose China’s political, educational and socio-economic situation while promoting human rights and religious freedom. The third is independent of any political and religious influence. its reporting is largely in line with the ideals of Western mainstream media and generally give an holistic view of Canberra’s policies and sentiments.
Our outfit belongs fits this last category. While independent media outlets are standard in the West, a one-party state cannot accept that media outlets “do not follow directives” and, by its reckoning, do damage to “national interests”. In China, national interests are synonyms for “the Party’s interests.”
In recent months it appears the Chinese government’s influence in Australia has become more open and, thus, more easily observed. For Chinese media platforms whose goal is to serve as the bridge between the Chinese community and the Australian mainstream, the challenge lies in reporting fairly and accurately on matters of conflict between the two countries. We choose to remain unyielding in our approach, reporting according to Western journalistic ideals. This has been tested during recent months, which have seen a deluge of articles examining issues that Beijing considers unpalatable. From the recent decision in The Hague rejecting Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, the mooted sales of the Kidman properties and Ausgrid, and gala concerts honouring Mao, the varying coverage has highlighted the gulf between the approved narrative and the straightforward presentation of facts.
Do we kowtow to the Chinese government, like so many of our counterparts? Do we fall mute on matters that would otherwise prove detrimental to our commercial interests? How, most of all, do we keep our journalistic integrity intact while trying to reach the many of our readers whose pro-China political views remain staunch, despite their extended time overseas?
The tide is not in our favour. As Beijing’s soft power grows, increasing numbers of Australian politicians, Chinese community groups and Chinese media companies are becoming more reliant on commercial and political ties with China. Thus, news that touts pro-China views and agendas is becoming ever more pervasive among the local “mainstream” Chinese news sources.
For example, recently the Australian government’s disquiet at China’s behaviour has been drowned out by the tidal wave of local and international Chinese medias’ selective reporting. Thus did we see coverage of Chinese Melbournians protesting The Hague ruling, but little of Beijing’s dubious “right” to build man-made islands and then claim surrounding waters as its own. Likewise, coverage of Sam Dastyari’s bills being picked up by a company with Beijing ties has been muted. All this has resulted in confusion within the Chinese community, where many believe not only that Dastyari represents a respectable point view. This is taken to mean that there must be divisions in Canberra regarding the South China Sea dispute when such is not the case, as both the Coalition and Labor are of one mind on this matter.
The prevailing pro-China sentiment is rooted in Communist culture and ideology that have been relentlessly instilled over decades. State-run mouthpieces, such as XinHua News, perpetually propagate the notion to overseas Chinese that “without your country, you are nothing”. This gives rise to the conviction that, regardless of any foreign citizenship, expatriates cannot divorce themselves from the blood that runs in their veins. Hence, if China is not strong, expatriates are nothing in the eyes of their adopted countries and countrymen.
A significant proportion of Chinese-Australians personally experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) where deeply rooted values were torn down and supplanted by a philosophy of fighting and struggle that continues top influence the thinking of younger Chinese. Many Chinese are also afflicted with the mentality of moral equivalence which argues that “China is lacking in many respects, but the West isn’t any better.” This nationalistic sentiment is so firmly entrenched many Chinese are extremely averse to criticism of their country. Any media or journalist that is critical of the Chinese government is labeled as “anti-China”. This is in stark contrast with the West, where criticism of the government is natural and normal.
As a Chinese media outlet aiming to bridge the Australia-China cultural gap, we strive to encourage our readers to let go of the Communist culture and consider the values and ideals of the West, much of which is not vastly different from traditional Chinese values. We urge our readers to look at issues from different perspectives. For example, we wish our readers to consider if the Chinese government allow Australia to influence its education system, fund research, buy Chinese media and key infrastructure and fund political campaigns? Would it allow thousands to rally against its own foreign policies? What would happen to a Chinese official if he or she supported a foreign power on a policy that was contrary to China’s interests?
A recent report, commissioned by the largely pro-China Australian China Relations Institute, states that despite China’s influence over Chinese language media in Australia, expatriates are somewhat immune to localised propaganda, the logic being that educated migrants can seek out other sources when forming their views. I do not believe this applies to important issues, such as Australia-China relations. In my experience, most Chinese expatriates prefer to read news in their own language. If they want to obtain in-depth coverage of Australia-China relations, the main sources would be local Chinese newspapers, websites, WeChat and Weibo, most of which are now directly controlled or heavily influenced by Beijing. Even for Chinese migrants who have a good grasp of the English language and read Australian news publications, selective reading seems prevalent. For example, a relative who has lived in Australia for over 15 years and frequents various local and international English media outlets still sends me pro-China articles from Australian mainstream media. He also disparages those articles critical of China.
The Chinese government’s growing influence on local Chinese language media reinforces viewpoints that become even more entrenched over time, making it more difficult for Chinese readers to accept alternative perspectives. Recent disharmony within the Chinese community and dissatisfaction with the Australian government are manifestations of the extent of China’s influence on local Chinese media.
Despite our hardships at Vision China Times — the lost advertising revenue from that intimidated immigration agent being but one example — we consider it our duty to provide impartial news helping to bridge the cultural and political divide between the East and West. This duty cannot be shirked, but Beijing’s manipulation and meddling makes it no easy task.
Yan Xia is editor-in-chief of Vision China Times