Australians’ trust in China has fallen to record lows, according to new survey
- The Lowy Institute’s annual poll has found that nearly two out of three Australians see Beijing as more security threat than economic partner
- An analyst expressed concern that one in five Australians said the Chinese people they met negatively influenced their overall view of China
The study, released on Tuesday night, found that just 34 per cent of Australians viewed China as more of an economic partner, compared with 55 per cent last year and 82 per cent in 2018.
The sharp change in public opinion comes as Australia and China are mired in a bitter diplomatic dispute that has seen Beijing slap restrictions on billions of dollars of Australian exports, in apparent retaliation for Canberra’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
“Australian views of China have been on a downward trajectory for some time, but what has really shifted in the past year is that fewer Australians see China as an economic opportunity, and even China’s economic growth is increasingly seen as a negative,” Kassam said. “This is likely a reaction to the year of targeted economic sanctions placed upon Australian businesses.”
In a Wednesday speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Frances Adamson, the outgoing secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, accused Beijing of possessing a “deeply defensive mindset” and “perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others”.
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“China speaks of a ‘new type of international relations’, as if it is a fairer way, an improvement,” said Adamson, who is in her final week in the role. “But underneath it is the same old power politics, the raw assertion of national interests. The implication being that China’s size and strength make its interests more ‘special’ than those of others, and that these must prevail.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not directly respond to a Bloomberg query about Adamson’s remarks, but cast doubt on the survey results. “The report is based on a survey of a little bit over 2,000 respondents,” he said. “Whether its conclusion is reliable is questionable.”
Australian perceptions of China deteriorated in every category measured by the Lowy Institute poll, with the exception of the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Asked to rate different countries’ response to the global health crisis, 45 per cent of respondents said China had done “very well” or “fairly well”, compared with 30 per cent last year.
More than nine out of 10 Australians said China’s military activities in the Asia-Pacific had a negative influence on their perception of the country, compared with 79 per cent in 2016. Just 20 per cent said Chinese investment in Australia had a positive influence on their perceptions, down sharply from 37 per cent in 2016.
Although 68 per cent of respondents described Chinese culture and history as a positive influence on their perceptions, 79 per cent answered the same way in 2016. Asked how their personal interactions with Chinese people had impacted their perceptions, 76 per cent said the influence was positive, down from 85 per cent five years ago.
Only 16 per cent of respondents said they trusted China to act responsibly in the world, down from 23 per cent last year and 52 per cent in 2018.
Asked who was to blame for the poor state of Sino-Australian relations, 56 per cent said China and 4 per cent said Australia, with 38 per cent blaming both countries equally.
In her speech, Adamson said Australia did not see the world through a “simplistic lens of zero-sum competition”, but would approach China with “confidence, realism, and an open mind”.
“National resilience and internal cohesion are important when dealing with China … but that doesn’t mean we should demand uniformity of viewpoint,” she said.
Yun Jiang, who manages the China Story blog at the Australian National University, said the survey results were not surprising.
“China’s trade actions against Australia as well as ‘wolf warrior’ style diplomacy has exacerbated this,” Jiang said. “From the perspective of most Australians, China’s actions have certainly not been partner-like.”
Jiang, however, expressed concern about the “spillover” of negative attitudes to ordinary Australians of Chinese descent. “In the Lowy survey, one in five Australians said that the Chinese people they have met negatively influenced their overall view of China. This is unfortunate.”
James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at University of Technology Sydney, said while deteriorating attitudes in the past could be attributed to developments in both countries, the dramatic slide in perceptions during the last year fell squarely on Beijing.
“It made the choice to inflict pain on Australian farmers and miners over political grievances it held towards Canberra,” Laurenceson said. “Not surprisingly, the Australian public is seeing the targeting of producers who had nothing to do with the political disputes as poor form by Beijing.”