ABC Watch: July 2019 China Blitz

Media critics Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky detailed in their Propaganda Model how propaganda and systemic biases function in corporate mass media. This work has been extended by David Edwards and David Cromwell of in their critique of the UK media— particularly of supposedly liberal outlets, such as the BBC and The Guardian. It is therefore not unexpected that the Australian government owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) might fill a similar position in the media landscape. This article is based on a search of all ABC articles and news items during the month of July that related to the search terms China, Chinese, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Uyghur.

Analysis of this listing shows that ABC reporting on China in July 2019 saw a significant ramp up in tone and stridency of the anti-China reporting—firstly in relation to the protests in Hong Kong and then the focus turned to Xinjiang—the centre-point of which was an ABC 4 Corners documentary “Tell The World” that screened on 15 July. Other key themes in the reporting during the month centred on Chinese influence in Australian universities; Chinese militarism (South China Sea and spying on the Talisman Sabre war games); repression, censorship and corrupt legal system; the economic effects on Australia of the Trump administration’s trade war; and Chinese drug cheats and gamblers.

Xinjiang mass incarceration — Religious minority persecution

In the days leading up the ABC’s 4 Corners documentary the number of items about Xinjiang and Uyghurs steadily increased and then hit a peak in the days immediately after. These items included calls for the Chinese government for release of the child and mother (shades of Bana Alabed in Syria, but without the Twitter feed), attacks on an academic researching facial recognition at an Australian university and calls for named Australian companies sourcing goods in Xinjiang to cease due to accusations of slave labour. This intense barrage of articles on a particular subject can be seen to constitute what Edwards and Cromwell call a “media blitz”, especially when extrapolated across the wider mainstream media reporting.  

Hong Kong protests — Opposing the people

While the month started with a steady stream of articles covering the Hong Kong protests, these had a noticeable break from 7 July when the Xinjiang campaign was running only to resume from 20 July with speculation that the Chinese government was behind Triad violence opposed to the protesters. In the main, the reports emphasised that the protests were an inevitable result of the Hong Kong people rejecting the Chinese communist system in favour of “democracy and freedom”. The overall tenor of the ABC’s coverage was of a legitimate mass movement of Hong Kong people confronting increasingly besieged Hong Kong and Chinese government officials who reacted to mostly peaceful protests supported by the mass of Hong Kong residents, albeit with some violent actions by a some, mostly young, protesters that were met with a harsh police response in the shape of barricades, tear gas and batons.

Australian protests — Chinese influence

From 24 July the Hong Kong coverage moved to protests that had arisen on Australian university campuses which featured clashes between students opposing and supporting the Chinese government. These reports initially focused on community and student division, but later turned to the extent of Chinese government “influence” in Australian universities.

Chinese militarism

The ABC articles during July focused on how Chinese military influences and presence were seen to be encroaching on Australia’s interests in the region and how China’s military capabilities had now eclipsed Australia’s. Key encroachments provided as evidence of this were diplomatic concerning the Chinese base in Antarctica (positioned within the area claimed by Australia), a prospective Chinese naval base in Cambodia and Chinese spying on the US-Australian Talisman Sabre war games. The cumulative effect of these is to reinforce a view that the Australian government is justified in viewing China as a strategic threat and thus meriting an increased focus on security and defence spending.

Repression, censorship and flawed legal system

The ABC’s reports also included a number of articles that emphasised China as a repressive, that censors opposition and tightly manages news from outside, and has a flawed legal system that cannot be trusted. The key themes in this concerned the arrest of Australian writer Yang Hengjun and how Chinese language teachers in Australian Confucius Institutes reputedly ‘Must love the motherland’. Articles such as the ‘Beijing bikini’ ban of 5 July underscore the authoritarian nature of the Chinese authorities, while the Chinese ‘love mother’ article of 31 July, which is ostensibly neutral reporting of an item of interest, must be read in the context of a general lack of faith in Chinese justice system.

Trade war and economy

Articles reporting on the economic effects of the US-China trade war tended to position Australia as a victim of these events rather than an active participant (as might be interpreted by the Australian government’s leading role in banning Huawei’s 5G technologies).

Chinese drug cheat and gamblers

Two other events that gained prominence during the last week of July concerned Australian swimmer Mack Horton refusing to stand on the winners podium next to Sun Yang and a developing scandal concerning alleged impropriety with Crown Casinos bringing Chinese high-rollers to their Australian casinos.

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