Report by: Angeli Datt and Dr. Fan Yang
- Influence tactics shift as Australian response expands: Chinese Communist Party influence efforts became more adversarial and coercive during the coverage period of 2019-21. Softer approaches, through content sharing agreements with Australian media and an agreement with the state of Victoria to join the Belt and Road Initiative, were cancelled in 2020-21. Chinese authorities detained an Australian journalist in China and forced the remaining correspondents to leave, while Beijing described local reporting as “poisoning” bilateral relations in its list of “14 Disputes” against Canberra.
- Fewer state media interactions: During the coverage period, local outlets largely eschewed the Chinese party-state’s efforts to influence them through paid inserts. Local media group Nine Entertainment, which publishes The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and Australian Financial Review quietly discontinued cooperation agreements with China Daily to publish China Watch inserts. Public Special Broadcasting Service stopped broadcasting content from China Central Television and China Global Television Network following a civil society complaint over forced televisions confessions by political prisoners in China. Most state media content that is locally accessible, including social media posts and Global Times articles, is poorly received by Australian audiences. State outlets do maintain a physical presence in Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne.
- Heightened public distrust: Bilateral ties have come under intense public scrutiny, rendering the Chinese Communist Party’s influence efforts largely ineffective. Public perceptions of Chinese governance, Beijing’s human rights record, bilateral economic cooperation, and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s leadership have all worsened during the coverage period. In a 2020 Lowy Institute poll, over 80 percent of Australian respondents expressed concern about Chinese government influence.
- Limited disinformation campaigns: Chinese officials and state media have amplified distorted images. In 2020, for example, a Chinese government spokesperson took to social media to share an image of an Australian soldier placing a knife at an Afghan child’s throat. Analytics firms found that the post was boosted by inauthentic accounts and that the Chinese consulate in Sydney had amplified information from inauthentic sources. There were also examples of misinformation on WeChat by Australian MPs to mislead Chinese Australian voters.
- Chinese authorities pressure Australian correspondents: Australian media stopped placing correspondents in China in September 2020, after Chinese authorities sought to question two reporters from Australia Broadcasting Corporation and Australian Financial Review who were then pulled out by their outlets. Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working with state outlet China Global Television Network, was detained in August 2020 and accused of disseminating state secrets; Cheng’s trial began behind closed doors in March 2022.
- Intimidation and self-censorship of Chinese Australian journalists: Ethnic Chinese journalists and commentators faced threats and intimidation for discussing human rights issues in China, including from state-linked actors. Relatives residing in China, meanwhile, have faced police intimidation. Some Chinese Australian journalists at mainstream English-language outlets use pseudonyms when publishing articles criticizing Beijing in order to shield their relatives in China. Some Chinese Australian journalists also self-censor for business reasons as well as for their own safety.
- Diverse diaspora media environment: The expatriate and diaspora population benefits from a significant media ecosystem. About 2.7 percent of the Australian population speaks Mandarin, the most widely spoken language after English. The diaspora’s primary Chinese-language news outlets are privately owned, including Vision China Times, which reports on human rights violations in China and local community news. Some legacy Chinese-language outlets sought support from state-linked actors in the early 2000s, but many later reversed course due to inconsistent funding from Beijing and local backlash from readers and advertisers. There are over 130 WeChat Chinese-language news accounts in Australia. WeChat accounts are often registered as Chinese official accounts and are therefore subject to Beijing’s domestic censorship regime.
- Skilled local journalists challenged by media concentration, partisanship, lack of diversity: Local journalists are able to conduct in-depth investigations on bilateral relations, Chinese domestic issues, and Beijing’s global influence. News outlets across the political spectrum, including the public broadcaster, have reported China-related news and investigations on CCP influence; however, conservative outlets more often carry such coverage. Local media ownership is heavily concentrated, with the News Corporation holding over 50 percent of the print market. Few Chinese Australian journalists work in mainstream outlets covering China.
- Weak defamation protection for media investigations: Though Australia has laws related to preventing strategic lawsuits against public participation, press freedom groups raised concern over the lack of protection for public interest reporting in a court case related to an investigative report on suspected Chinese Communist Party foreign influence. The court ruled against Australia Broadcast Corporation and Fairfax Media in a February 2021 defamation lawsuit and awarded $400,000 to the plaintiff, an Australian-Chinese businessman.
- Strong regulatory environment: An independent regulator and several laws govern the local media sector, with transparency mechanisms regarding foreign ownership and limiting cross-ownership. While a 2018 foreign influence law has been lauded as a step towards transparency of foreign actors’ activities in Australia. However, it has been met with criticism for fostering an environment of racialized suspicion of ethnic Chinese, who are sometimes accused of functioning as agents of Beijing.
- Growing civil society and political response to disinformation: Canberra and local outlets consult a large number of independent experts on China, including civil society organizations like the Lowy Institute and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. There is a growing effort to track the Chinese Communist Party’s disinformation and influence efforts. The government is additionally mounting a response to dis- and misinformation on social media, including from foreign sources.
- Problematic political behavior exacerbates xenophobia: Local politicians exaggerate and manipulate legitimate concerns over Beijing’s influence to advance their own interests. During the 2022 federal electoral period, which was marred by anti-China rhetoric, the Liberal Party depicted the then opposition Labor Party as Beijing’s preferred political partner. The political atmosphere, which grew starker during the pandemic, has contributed to an increase in ethnic discrimination. A 2021 Lowy Institute survey found that a third of Chinese Australians faced discriminatory treatment that year.
The full Australia country report will be posted as soon as it becomes available.
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