Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi meet in Bali. (Image: AAP/Johannes P Christo)
Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Bali. (Image: AAP/Johannes P Christo)

After three years in deep freeze, Australia’s relationship with China may be starting to thaw, with the foreign affairs ministers finally talking to each other.

After the meeting between Penny Wong and Wang Yi, the Chinese ministry issued a carefully crafted statement in which China sounded positive and forward-looking, according to quite a few bilingual diplomats. On all accounts, one would have thought that this at last was a good news story.

But what has ensued is a classic example of how a “good story” can be turned into a bad one, courtesy of Australian media.

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It seems most stories we have seen so far about this official statement pivot around how to interpret a few sentences in the statement. Translated by Professor Jocelyn Chey, they read as follows:

It was hoped that Australia would catch the current opportunity, take concrete actions, reconstruct a correct perception of China, and reduce negative equity and accumulate positive energy in order to improve China-Australia relations. First, China should continue to be regarded as a partner not a rival. Second, the way of ‘seeking common ground while reserving differences’ should be maintained. Third, [the practice of] not aiming at others or being controlled by others should be maintained. Fourth, the building of a foundation of positive practical community support should be maintained.

Translated thus, these seem to be just four vaguely worded points that may be taken as either advice or as principles that both sides should adhere to.

But despite these nuances, the most frequently used word in the Australian media to describe the four points has been “demands”. For example, an ABC story asserted: “Mr Wang has made four general demands of the new government” — without any justification for its use of “demands”.

From then on the media angle seems to have congealed around more or less one theme: China is again lecturing us and is trying to dictate the terms and conditions of the bilateral relationship.

A statement apparently aiming to start the process of reconciliation is now presented as further evidence of China’s assertiveness/aggressiveness. So it’s a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The narrative of a demanding, unreasonable China is well and truly back on its well-worn track.

The media not only largely set the agenda for how to cover the event, but they also seem invested in perpetuating this single-minded perspective. Therefore, no doubt in response to a journalist’s question regarding China’s “demands”, both Guardian Australia on the left and the Murdoch press on the right reported Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as saying: “Australia does not respond to demands.”

Regardless of whether Albanese believes the four points are actually demands, his response becomes a new development in the “demand” narrative. The media seem to have played him like a violin.

The demand narrative seems a natural continuation of an “aggrieved China”. This process of turning raw material (what happens in real life) into a media narrative with a particular slant is best illustrated by considering how the “14 grievances” came about. Speaking at a recent forum held by the University of Technology Sydney, Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian, echoing his colleague deputy ambassador Wang Xining, implied that the “14 grievances” were a result of the Australian media’s handiwork.

This raises the question of how journalists operate in covering Australia-China relations, how they translate specific terms in a foreign language, how they frame a statement made in a particular context, and how they interpret an issue or event that may be open to multiple readings.

Like a sous-chef who overwhips the cream and ends up with butter, some journalists keep churning the China story until it fits the pre-existing, easily digestible and necessarily aggressive China narrative we are all too familiar with from recent years of media coverage. But once the butter of the 14 grievances has formed, journalists can then use it as if it was never cream in the first place.

Almost a year ago, Geoff Raby, Australia’s former ambassador to China, observed that The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher had presented China’s 14 grievances as if they were some kind of official démarche made on the Australian government. He said Hartcher “intones repeatedly about these ‘demands’ as if they had the status of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the chapel door at Wittenberg University which started the Reformation. That is a serious misreading.”

All this goes to show that so much is at stake in deciding how to translate from Chinese to English when a remark is made, and how a particular term — mistranslated either deliberately or ignorantly — takes on a life of its own.

But interestingly, and ironically, very often the problem is not that the translation is not accurate, but that it is wilfully too accurate. Too often what is delivered as a figure of speech intended for domestic Chinese audiences who are versed in revolutionary language ends up being translated verbatim. Such “faithful” translation is too tempting for journalists not to use — when it suits their purposes — even though some are well aware of the proper cultural context in which the hyperbolic statement was made.

A good example is a speech to commemorate the centenary of the Communist Party of China by President Xi Jinping last year. Addressing the party, Xi was translated in the West as saying: “The Chinese people absolutely will not permit any foreign power to bully, oppress or enslave us. Those who vainly attempt to do so will bloody their own heads when they collide with a great wall of steel composed of the flesh and blood of over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Similar sensational words were used in a barrage of news stories in the Australian media from The Australian to The Australian Financial Review. By contrast, the official Chinese translation was effective and truer to the intended meaning: “Anyone attempting to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” To Western journalists, clearly the literal image of bloody and cracked skulls proved too tempting.

The literal translation set off a wave of anxiety in the Australian media about the “China threat”, but as former diplomat Colin Heseltine argued, Xi’s speech did not merit the “alarmist interpretations of the more hawkish commentators”.

Is what Raby called “misreading” a consequence of linguistic incompetence, a lack of China literacy, or poor professional judgment on the part of the journalists? Or is it a consequence of a mindset that is ideologically informed, and perhaps even politically motivated?

Over the past few years, the China threat narrative has kept many commentators in demand and is one of the many hot topics that have kept the mainstream media afloat and their journalists employed, so from the media’s point of view there’s little reason to change course. A newly elected government intending to improve the Australia-China relationship is not necessarily good news in journalistic terms. Where is the selling point if the story is bereft of conflict?

Raby, commenting on the Australian media’s penchant for misreading, shared valuable professional advice: “In commenting on diplomacy and foreign policy it is helpful to know the difference between a demarche and an aide memoire. The French makes it a little difficult for sure, but the former is a demand by one government on another to take or desist from certain actions; the latter is a note to assist one side or the other to recall matters discussed.”

But knowing the difference is not going to help newspapers sell copies or encourage people to click on links. Like a hammer that prefers to see everything as a nail, hawkish commentators and politicians, aided by unthinking journalists, will probably continue to ignore such advice, and instead ensure that the wheel of adversarial journalism keeps turning as far as China is concerned.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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