The Australian government’s Public Diplomacy Strategy points to the importance of “diaspora diplomacy”. It promises to take steps to “engage diaspora communities drawing on their linguistic skills, social networks and cultural community connections”, by making active use of “online and social media as public diplomacy tools”.
Mandarin-speaking migrants now comprise Australia’s largest ethnic-language-speaking community. But if we take this community as an example, we can safely say Australia’s diaspora diplomacy efforts have already failed before they have even had a chance to start.
Australia’s Chinese community hasn’t been more alienated since Pauline Hanson’s first maiden speech 20 years ago than it is today. The failure to engage with the Chinese diaspora is all the more worrying given China is actively pursuing this group as a potential instrument of its own public diplomacy agenda.
A student migrant-driven media
My recently released report on Chinese-language media in Australia points to the emergence of an online Chinese media sector that is mostly run by student migrants.
These online media typically publish entertainment and soft news, and are not interested in simply being mouthpieces for China’s propaganda. Yet they tend to be staunchly nationalistic in favour of China on issues involving national pride, national sovereignty and territorial disputes.
This sentiment mostly surfaces in response to coverage of these issues by Australia’s mainstream media.
These student migrants had expected the Australian media to be more “objective” than Chinese propaganda. But they realise with disillusion and subsequent bitterness that when Australia and China clash over certain matters, the Australian media are equally dictated to by their own political and ideological agendas.
Recently, the editor of Sydney Today, the most-popular online Chinese-language news site in Australia, was angry to find that his words had been “distorted”, “exaggerated”, and “taken out of context” by a “certain journalist from an English-language newspaper in Australia”.
On a more ongoing basis, it appears a significant proportion of the Chinese community feel the Australian media are greatly influenced by the US media and a Cold War mentality, and that they tend to cover China within a narrow framework. The recent drama involving Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s remarks on the South China Sea dispute to Chinese-language media reinforced this perception.
However, the tabloid media have no monopoly on journalism that peddles fear or panders to populist sentiment. Critiques of such narrative frameworks in the online Chinese media are much more visceral and less dispassionate.
After listing a number of points aimed at poking holes in the article’s logic, the Global Times article ends by asking, somewhat acerbically:
China spying on Australia? Why? Tell us, Australia, who do you think you are? What have you got in Australia that is remotely worth spying on, apart from the Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, clean air and killer ultra-violet sunshine?
What does it mean for social cohesion?
At moments like this, people from the Chinese migrant community experience cultural anxiety and frustration. This may become a trigger for social disharmony.
Anti-Chinese hostility, channelled and fanned by the mainstream media, may fuel negative sentiments toward Australia on the part of Chinese migrants. Their consequent sense of grievance – sometimes expressed in emotionally charged terms – may incur further prejudice, even racism, against them.
This racism, as it is wont to do, operates indiscriminately. It targets all people of Chinese origin – be they from China or elsewhere, be they for or against the Chinese government.
All this has serious implications for social cohesion in Australia’s highly multicultural fabric. If this war of words between the two media sectors continues, there will be no winners – assuming Australia is serious about maintaining harmony.
More than ever, the biggest challenge centres on how to turn this tension into an opportunity for building a diverse, pluralistic and inclusive media environment.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."