Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is unimpressed – again –  at Kevin Rudd’s ability to speak Mandarin, not to mention his penchant for flaunting the fact.

After news yesterday that Rudd would be appearing on Chinese TV speaking in Mandarin, Downer labelled him a show-off. “I think he should focus on speaking to the Australian people not trying to show off that he can speak a foreign language. Thousands upon thousands of Australians can speak Chinese and Japanese and French and German. The question is whether they’re fit to be the Prime Minister of Australia.”

Yes, but on the other hand, Chinese is quite a handy tool to have up your sleeve in these times, as opposed to, say, French. Especially, if you’re Prime Minister. Let us count the ways:

China: major Australian trade partner.

  • In late 2006, China overtook the USA as our second largest trading partner, and according to a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade fact document, China is currently around A$100m away from overtaking Japan to become our largest trade partner.
  • Total trade between China-Australia equalled A$49.9 billion in the 2006-2007 period, representing a 21 percent increase from the year before.
  • Australia and China are currently in the tenth round of negotiations for the establishment of a Free Trade Agreement.
  • Education was the fourth largest Australian export in 2006, equalling A$10.9 billion annually. China is Australia’s largest market for international student enrolments, providing 24 percent of all enrolments (29 percent if Hong Kong is included). Between September 2006 and September 2007, 98000 Chinese enrolments were received at Australian education institutions.
  • Tourism was Australia’s third largest Australian export in 2006, equalling A$11 billion annually. Chinese visitor arrivals surpassed 300,000 in that year, placing China as the fifth largest source of international visitors to Australia with 6 percent of the total number. Tourism Australia forecasts that visitor arrivals from China are likely to grow to almost one million by 2015, with an economic value for the Australian economy of A$4.3 billion.

Australian-Chinese population.

  • People born in China now form the third biggest migrant group (4.7 percent).
  • The 2001 Australian Bureaeu of Statistics census revealed 401,300 speakers of a Chinese language (Cantonese/Mandarin/Other).

Chinese and the Election.

  • Sydney has the largest population of Chinese migrants, with 7.1 percent of residents identifying themselves as Chinese. The three largest Chinese electorates are also in NSW: Watson (very safe Labor) has the largest Chinese population in Australia, with 16.2 percent of Watson residents speaking Chinese at home; Bennelong (marginal Liberal) comes in second with 15 percent speaking Chinese at home; and thirdly, 10 percent of Parramatta (marginal Liberal) residents speaking Chinese at home.

  • Bennelong and Parramatta are the only seats held by the Coalition in the top 20 electorates of non-English speakers.

  • Australian residents born in China now form the third biggest migrant group (4.7 percent). 

The importance of Bennelong

  • The Prime Minister’s seat of Bennelong is home to the nation’s second-largest Chinese-born population. More than one in ten Bennelong residents were born in China or Hong Kong. In the past five years, the number of Chinese-born residents in Bennelong has almost doubled, from about 5000 to more than 9600, and about 15 percent speak a Chinese language at home.
  • Not all of these residents will be Australian citizens eligible to vote. But there are more than enough of them on the electoral roll to swing the seat, both sides say.
  • Howard holds Bennelong by a margin of 4 percent, or fewer than 3500 votes based on the 2004 result.

Australians’ view of China

In 2005, the Age reported on the inaugural poll released by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent think tank, revealing the surprising negativity people expressed about the Americans and fascination for China.

Australians are significantly more positive towards China (69 per cent) than towards the US (58 percent) and Indonesia (52 per cent).

  • It is obvious that Australians are more relaxed about China, with its great power, than about Indonesia, closer but with limited power.
  • China’s growing power comes last in a list of threats (concerning only just over one-third of Australians), while US foreign policies and Islamic fundamentalism each worry well over half. Lowy Institute executive director Allan Gyngell says: “Australians see China as an opportunity, not a threat. The yellow peril seems to have dried up.”
  • Only about one in five people think Australia should join America if it went to war with China over Taiwan. And on the issue of the moment in the Australia-China relationship, 51 per cent believe a free trade agreement would be good for Australia, compared with only 34 per cent who believe the FTA with the US, concluded last year, will be beneficial.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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