As Kerry Brown noted yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech to the Australian parliament on Monday gave Australians plenty to talk about, and Australians (of a certain kind at least) have been busily dissecting it to see what it might mean for the bilateral relationship.
The coverage in China of President Xi's speech, however, has been far more muted, which suggests that while Sino-Australian ties are a hot topic in Australia, they are far less so in China. This is partly because China is more important to Australia, in multiple ways, than Australia is to China. But it also reflects the limited interest many Chinese people have in international relations and foreign policy. The focus for most Chinese people — and the Government — is far more on domestic issues; foreign policy is generally seen as a means to support the primary goal of domestic development.
Yesterday I enjoyed a delightful lunch with international relations and diplomacy scholars from a local university here in China. We had a frank and dynamic conversation about various topics related to Chinese foreign policy. However, when I asked what they thought of Xi's speech to Australia's parliament, my companions were rather nonplussed. One professor politely volunteered to break the silence by observing that it was a warm and practical speech, in which the essence was basically the same as that which former President Hu Jintao might have presented, but the style and manner was much more relaxed and engaging.
It did not take much pressing to get the assembled academics to admit that the speech had not really caught their attention. None of them had read it, nor any media coverage about it.
A survey of Chinese media coverage suggests that this rather lukewarm response is widespread throughout China. The major state-run news agencies, including Xinhua and The People's Daily, all ran exactly the same story, entitled '习近平在澳大利亚联邦议会发表重要演' ('Xi Jinping issued an important speech at the Australian Parliament').
The articles begin with a brief discussion of the 'China dream' before going into some detail about how China's development is viewed with uncertainty by other countries, and Xi's three points on what China is doing to allay those concerns. The articles then talk about how, in the wake of the success of Xi's visit to Australia, future Sino-Australia relations should be built on long-term and broad-reaching mutually beneficial objectives. For this to be achieved, they note, mutual trust will need to be further developed. The articles emphasise that Xi was warmly received, and that Australian politicians recognise the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship. China Central Television news ran stories based on the same script.
The South China Morning Post, known for being more independent of the government line, ran the headline '习近平: 中国了解'国虽大, 好战必亡' ('Xi Jinping: China understands that even a big [powerful] country will certainly be destroyed if it is warlike'). The content was more or less the same as the state agencies (China's desire for peaceful development; Beijing's willingness to cooperate with other countries to maintain peace). The English version of this article too focused on China's commitment to non-forceful means of achieving its goals. This version also mentioned some of the protesters and pro-Beijing supporters who gathered on the lawns of Parliament House at the time of the speech.
What does it mean that President Xi's speech in Australia has failed to ignite the Chinese national imagination?
Where articles were published about Xi's speech in Chinese media, they used stock wording and were eclipsed by coverage of the G20. Both state-aligned and more independent media focused on Xi's three points describing what China is doing to allay other countries' 'natural' concerns about its growing influence, rather than on Sino-Australian relations (except that the development of mutual trust needs more work).
The Chinese coverage of Xi's speech strongly suggests that Sino-Australian relations are not of as much interest to the average Chinese person as China's role as a world economic power or its role on the international stage. It also points to a broader ambivalence to world affairs. For most Chinese people, the world only really matters inasmuch as it impacts on Chinese domestic affairs, particularly economic and social development. Australia would do well to remember that when China acts outside its borders, its purpose is always domestic.
Jessica Tang contributed research to this post.