First-generation migrants from China believe Australian media reporting has fuelled unfriendly or suspicious attitudes towards them, new research shows.
The report, published by the University of Technology Sydney, explores the hopes and fears of members of Chinese-Australian communities, including a parent whose child came home from school asking: “Mum, is China going to invade us?”
The report released on Wednesday focuses on first-generation Mandarin-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and outlines the results of a survey of 689 respondents matching that description.
The Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS also sought to investigate the meaning behind the survey results by conducting three focus groups and 20 in-depth interviews.
When asked about the effect of Australian media reports about “Chinese influence”, 70% of the survey respondents said such stories had made the Australian public “more unfriendly or suspicious towards Chinese-Australian communities”.
But respondents were more divided about whether the Australian English-language media trust Chinese-Australians.
While 51% of those surveyed in January said the media were either “relatively distrustful” or “completely distrustful”, the report added that “just over 40% of respondents held a more optimistic view about this media group’s level of trust in their communities”.
One interviewee told researchers: “Phrases like ‘Chinese spy’ or ‘Chinese threat’ used in the media can make others and society treat us differently, even trigger racism … It can affect everyone in the Chinese community.”
The report noted that attempts had been made by Australian news outlets and politicians to differentiate the Communist party of China from Chinese-Australian communities – but 59% of survey respondents said they were “still worried despite this distinction” because “excessive negative reporting” would fuel suspicion.
Wanning Sun, the deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute and a UTS media professor, said the focus on geopolitical tensions had “posed serious challenges for PRC migrants in their efforts to be accepted into Australian society, and to express a dual identity as Chinese-Australians”.
“Interviewees emphasise that while they do not have a problem with ‘negative’ news about the PRC, they frequently perceive a particular news-making agenda in Australian English-language media that frames the PRC and Chinese-Australians as hostile entities,” Sun wrote in the report.
“A large majority of survey respondents (76%) say they either rarely or never feel they have a say in shaping public discourse. This points to a potentially significant issue for Australia regarding social inclusion and justice.”
The research also examined persistent media speculation about a potential war with China.
An overwhelming majority of respondents said they were either “extremely concerned” (55%) or “quite concerned” (36%) when asked: “How concerned are you about what might happen to you if Australia went to war with China?”
One of the focus group interviewees said: “Of course I’m worried about the prospect of a war but, to be honest with you, I don’t dare to imagine what it actually would mean for people such as us.”
The interviewee added: “Nobody wants to be in a situation where the two countries that matter to them most – the motherland and their adopted country – are at war.”
A middle-aged accountant from Sydney told researchers: “I don’t know what to say to my daughter. One time she came home from school and she asked me, ‘Mum, is China going to invade us?’ She said others in her school were talking about this in class. I tried to calm her down but I’m worried myself.”
But another interviewee said conflict with China would be a bad outcome for all Australians, not just for Chinese-Australians, and there was “no need to distinguish the degree of harm of a war based on people’s cultural heritage”.
The survey also sought to test feelings of inclusion by asking participants: “As a first-generation migrant, do you think the mainstream Australian community considers you to be an equal member of that community?”
Despite broader concerns about media coverage, the results showed 17% of respondents answered that they were “always” viewed as equal members of the community, 36% believed that was the case “often”, and 31% replied “sometimes”. On the other hand, 12% responded “rarely” and 5% “very rarely”.