Think-tank clickbait

Latest survey shows that even the reputable Lowy Institute is not immune from producing headline grabbing reports

24 June 2021 | Marcus Reubenstein

Those who woke to news reports yesterday discovered that Australians have almost no faith in China’s leadership.

The news came out of the Lowy Institute Poll 2021, an annual survey conducted since 2005, the purpose of which is to provide a snapshot of Australian opinions on foreign policy matters.

The opening line of the Executive Summary is “Trust in China has fallen to a new record low.” That is of course the headline that was picked up across the media, the problem in couching a comprehensive report in just ten words is it sets the media agenda for the day.

It also buried some other key findings which were hardly complimentary of Australia’s current leadership.

New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern stands head and shoulders above the rest in the eyes of Australians, 91 percent of Australians say they have confidence in her leadership and to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” compared to 67 percent having confidence in their own prime minister to do the same.

Morrison lags behind “like minded” leaders

In terms of doing the right thing on the world stage, 32 percent of respondents expressed little or no confidence in Prime Minister Scott Morrison, surprisingly that puts him well behind his peers who he often refers to as leaders of “like-minded democracies”.

Just six percent had no confidence in New Zealand’s Ardern, while 13 percent disapproved of German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Japanese leader Yoshihide Suga polled 14 percent; and US President Joe Biden at 29 percent.

Source: Lowy Institute

78 percent of respondents lacked trust in Chinese President Xi Jinping, while only 16 percent say they trust China a great deal.

Whilst the China hawks in the mainstream media jumped on this number, they failed to grasp that none of the commentators disparagingly referred to as “China apologists” or “panda huggers” disagreed.

Over the past twelve months, China’s leadership has done little to engender trust in the minds of Australians. Given the current diplomatic freeze, one could argue that number is fairly accurate in light of China’s recent policy position in relation to Australia.

That said, it is the sole function of foreign policy for nation states to act in their own interests—a point that Scott Morrison and his leadership team constantly pushes to the media. There are two sides to the argument Australia is having with China and the popular media narrative is to tell only one side and this Lowy Poll has been used to feed that side.

ABC News 24 ran a seven and a half minute segment on the report’s release. Despite Australia-China engagement being dominated by trade (notwithstanding all that’s going on around it) ABC News chose to fill its report with images of Chinese military parades and hardware.

China is a large, diverse and complex nation which pursues a number of policies that have little justification in the context of accepted western norms.

However, not everything China does is bad, it pulled 650 million people out of poverty in a generation and has delivered hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth to our nation through its once (but no longer) seemingly voracious appetite for Australian exports.

Whilst the federal government and almost 100 percent of the mainstream media paint the actions of China as the sole reason for the breakdown in relations, only 56 percent of the population believes this to be the case.  

The blowback on Australia’s Chinese Community

In essence, the media reporting on this Lowy Poll sheds no light on the entirety of Australia’s global engagements, it simply was used to reinforce negative views on China.

That rhetoric feeds into antagonism towards Chinese-Australians, the Lowy Institute’s own research from March this year showed that one in five Chinese-Australians had been attacked or physically threatened in the previous twelve months.

Sixty percent of Australians of Chinese ethnicity were not born in Mainland China, yet most seem to be under suspicion of divided loyalties between the nation in which they’ve been overwhelmingly exemplary citizens and a nation where they were not even born.

The mainstream media is feeding a highly vexatious debate and ordinary Chinese-Australians—with no interest in China’s current leadership—are collateral damage.

One findings of the report, largely ignored by the media, is that 76 percent of those polled formed positive views on China based on personal interaction with people of Chinese ethnicity.   

Whilst, of no comfort to the China hawks and wolverines, 72 percent say Australia should simultaneously pursue good relations with both China and the United States.  

Lies, damned lies and statistics

Like any survey the Lowy findings have to be taken with a large grain of salt. The glaring “statistical error” is that 61 percent of respondents feel Australian media reporting on China is fair and balanced.

The fact that this Lowy report was so clearly cherry-picked by the mainstream media to present China as an almost entirely untrustworthy partner is a good indication it was well off in that assessment.