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Public Sentiment Toward Australia Shifts in China

A recent survey notes some important changes in how urban, educated Chinese view Australia.

By Dan Hu for
Public Sentiment Toward Australia Shifts in China
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

A recent poll on the Chinese attitude toward Australia, commissioned by the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) and Global Survey Centre, points to shifting sentiments among the country’s better-educated and higher-income population. Australia has for many years remained a popular destination for Chinese tourists, students, and migrants, but now China’s educated urbanites increasingly regard the long-time favorite as a “threat” to China and take a rather bleak view of the future of bilateral relations.

The survey was conducted by Data100, a long-running Chinese company conducting social and market research. It reports the results of a national survey on 2,105 adults across 10 major Chinese cities (defined in China as “first-tier” or “new first-tier” cities) between June 11 and 14, 2020. 77.6 percent of the respondents belong to the higher income group as defined in China (about $700 per month or above) and 71.7 percent have a bachelor’s degree or above. This is the first “Chinese seeing Australia” poll done by China, though Chinese favorability toward foreign countries has been monitored every year by Global Survey. The Australia-based Lowy Institute also conducted a China poll in 2009 by telephone-interviewing 1,200 respondents representing the urban population.

Both the BFSU poll and Lowy’s 2009 China poll, though conducted 11 years apart, coincided with low ebbs in China-Australia relations, which were evidently reflected in the public sentiment of both countries. For example, China’s annual favorability survey, done late last year, already indicated Australia was once again out of the top three of the 10 listed foreign countries, after previous falls in 2016 and 2017. Australia had managed to climb back to the number four spot in 2018, but dropped to number six in 2019. Similarly, Lowy’s 2019 poll of Australians, which was released in June that year, also recorded decreasing level of good feelings toward China on its “feelings thermometer,” from 58 in 2018 to 49 a year later (the “thermometer” asks respondents to rate their feelings towards other countries, “with one hundred meaning a very warm, favorable feeling, zero meaning a very cold, unfavorable feeling”). The just-released 2020 poll saw Australian feelings toward China drop further, down to 39.

The feelings thermometer in the BFSU poll records an average of 65.28, which may seem significantly higher than how the Australians see China, possibly even indicating “still widespread positive sentiment,” as suggested by The Australian. But it poses too much risk to compare thermometer results across surveys on different countries, due to sampling, representativeness, or even the element of some cultures just being more “approving” or “critical.” The BFSU poll this year, in particular, concentrated only on the higher-education and higher-income group in China’s biggest cities. The cross-tabulation of questions already suggests strong evidence for lower favorability toward Australia as educational attainment and income level decreases. Given China’s demographic makeup, the thermometer number would definitely be lower, perhaps significantly, in a nationally representative survey.

The same issue that casts a long shadow when reading other results. If, for instance, respondents with lower education and income levels indeed appear to be less well-informed, less rational, and more nationalistic, as many survey studies have suggested, the “optimistic” results gained from the BFSU poll would very likely translate into much less favorable outcomes if adjusted to represent the national population as a whole. In fact, as the results show, the trend is already worrying, even without taking that into consideration.

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Though 66.8 percent of the respondents agree that “to China, Australia is more of an economic partner,” 29.7 percent now see the country down under more of a “political or ideological threat” and 3.5 percent as a “military threat.” In analyzing bilateral relations going forward, 49.5 percent of the respondents list the United States as the biggest impediment, with 32.5 percent attributing difficulties to “ideological differences” and 13.7 percent pinpointing “domestic politics in Australia.” As for the future of China-Australia ties, 44.4 percent are still optimistic, whereas 28.8 percent remain pessimistic and 26.8 percent think it is “hard to say.”

A key question the BFSU poll intends to explore is how the Chinese people perceive Australia, which has for years been understudied. The results show at least that the better-educated and higher-income segments of the population identify many of the fundamental issues in bilateral relations. The perception of Australia being more of a “military” or “political or ideological threat” rather than an economic partner by one-third of the group looms large as perhaps the most important change in public sentiment. Has the public perception of Australia as a welcoming destination for tourists and students started to shift? Or maybe this anxiety has been running all along, underneath the seeming goodwill when bilateral relations remained warm? When Lowy polled Chinese respondents in 2009, 13 percent strongly agreed and 35 percent somewhat agreed that “Australia is a country suspicious of China.”

This concern appears to be evidenced by the four questions concerning preferred travel and education destinations. Though Australia is ranked quite favorably in the BFSU poll – number two among the 12 tourist destinations and number one in the eight education states — respondents are showing patterns that may start to be worrisome for Australian operators. In addition to weighing how well COVID-19 has been handled, respondents seem to be swayed by the current state of bilateral relations, sometimes to a great extent. The United States, for example, took a shocking plummet on the tourist list, favored by only 2.6 percent of respondents, while Japan (17.6 percent) remains the most popular destination, and Russia (15.2 percent) and Singapore (13.3 percent) are rushing to the top. On the education side as well, the long-time champions — the United States and United Kingdom — are falling behind compared with previous surveys, which may be explained by respondents taking into account how well the pandemic has been controlled and/or current relations with China. The same could be said about Canada, whose place on the list saw a further slide.

The importance of overall bilateral relations is further illustrated by the result on the questions “to what extent are a country’s China policy, goodwill and bilateral relations important when you decide on a destination for travel” or “education?” 39.4 percent reported bilateral relations as “very important” and 40.4 percent “fairly important” for travel decisions and, more overwhelmingly, 48.8 percent said good relations were “very important” and 37.6 percent “fairly important” for overseas education.

The poll will run every year as an effort to better gauge public sentiment in China toward Australia. This year’s results pose some interesting questions that would only be answered by further research. For example, what would a nationally representative result look like if the survey were conducted beyond just the major cities and higher-income and better-educated group? Another surprise from the survey result is that Shanghai, arguably the most favored Chinese city by Australians and where a great number of Australians are residing, records significantly lower positivity toward Australia in the feelings thermometer.

Dan Hu is Deputy Director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She is the Deputy General Secretary of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies and has chaired or participated in multiple projects on the larger bilateral relationship.