China coverage soars as Australia wrestles with relationship

China coverage in Australian media has doubled in just a few months as several domestic stories coincide with global focus on the Hong Kong protests and ongoing trade tensions with the US.

Recent analysis by Streem showed there was twice as many media items mentioning China in August as there was in April, a marked increase from the long-term average.

The rise in China coverage has been dramatic in recent months.

The two biggest subtopics among stories mentioning China were Hong Kong (mentioned in 23 per cent of China stories) and the trade war (20 per cent).

However, recent months have also seen a spike in the reporting of long-running issues likely to be seen as negative towards China.

Mentions of human rights, for example, were up 150% in China stories in the past three months, when compared to the same period last year.

Mentions of foreign interference or espionage increased 49 per cent, while coverage of the maligned Uighur population of Xinjiang province was five times what it was a year ago, coming from a lower base.

The biggest increase in overall coverage came from TV and radio where monthly numbers almost tripled. By contrast, print was up 60 per cent and online up 73 per cent.

Streem media and partnerships lead Conal Hanna said the recent spike in China-related coverage had been dramatic, when you considered that China’s emergence as a global power had been decades in the making.

“Obviously the protests in Hong Kong and trade war with the US have driven a large part of the increase, but it appears local media is currently deploying a particularly critical eye on China.

China coverage by media type

“Almost every week a new story emerges that has China, or a Chinese Australian, as a central element, whether that be alleged links between Crown casino and Chinese crime syndicates, the competition for strategic influence in the Pacific, or question marks over federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu’s allegiances.

“Often with these big issues, increased attention begets even more scrutiny as reporters dig into the various security, economic and political threads that emerge.

“But not all of these issues are new either.

“It’s interesting to me that mentions of human rights are up 150% in China stories year-on-year when there have long been concerns over China’s attitude to human rights.”

The analysis also examined the prominence of stories about China, and found there had been twice as many stories in the front 10 pages of print in August this year compared to last year. Online, there were 53 per cent more stories in the top 10 spots on major news home pages.

Mr Hanna said different news outlets had focused on different elements of China coverage.

“The Guardian has been more inclined to focus on China’s human rights record while The Australian is the most likely to report on issues of espionage and foreign interference.

“Those two outlets are widely seen to be on opposite sides of the political divide, yet they are both delving into the China relationship in different ways.”

Timeline of some recent China stories (beyond Hong Kong and the trade war):

July 28 - 60 Minutes airs allegations linking Crown casino to Chinese money-laundering outfits.

August 4 - US secretary of state Mike Pompeo warns Australia not to “sell your soul for a pile of soy beans” in prioritising Chinese trade over security.

August 8 - Andrew Hastie, chair of the parliamentary joint committee for intelligence and security, writes controversial op-ed in Nine’s newspapers saying Australia has failed to pay enough attention to China’s ideological ambitions.

August 21 - A Chinese official criticises Australia for acting like a “condescending master” towards Pacific countries and “spreading the China threat fallacy”.

August 23 - Former PM Kevin Rudd accuses Hastie and the Coalition of fomenting national hysteria over China.

August 25 - NSW ICAC begins hearings into alleged illegal political donations by exiled Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.

September 12 - PM Scott Morrison accuses Labor of racism in their questioning of MP Gladys Liu’s allegiances.

September 16 - Reuters reports China was behind the February hack into the Australian parliamentary computer network.

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