Official relations between Australia and China have been strained in recent years. The two countries have been involved in a trade dispute since 2020, when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and China responded by imposing new tariffs. The worsening relationship has also been evident in public opinion surveys: Australia saw the sharpest increase in negative views of China of any country surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2020, and those negative views remain widespread in Australia today.
To better understand how Australians think about China, the Center asked Australians in a 2021 survey to describe – in their own words – the first thing that comes to mind when they think of China. Researchers then analyzed the 1,127 responses with a focus on the first five topics that Australians mentioned.
Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to get a better sense of Australians’ attitudes about China at a time of tension between the two countries. The analysis examines responses from Australians who were asked to describe, in their own words, the first things that come to mind when they think about China. To do this, we surveyed 1,127 Australians from March 15 to 29, 2021, and coded their responses. We coded the first five mentions in each open-ended response using a researcher-developed codebook.
Australian adults most frequently mentioned the political system when thinking about China (29%). Some specifically critiqued the government. For example, one Australian man said, “Chinese leadership is a threat to the rest of the world.”
Other Australians listed government actions, such as one woman who referenced “punishment for those who speak out about the government.” Some comments about the government were more neutral, such as “Different forms of government need to be respected.”
A public focus on China’s government – rather than its people – is consistent with other recent Pew Research Center findings about China, including in the United States. The Center has also found a similar pattern in survey respondents’ views of countries other than China: Americans, for example, are more likely to have a negative view of Israel’s government than its people.
In Australia, the share of respondents who brought up China’s political system in their open-ended responses included 15% who described how political power was distributed across or exercised in the country. Many simply used labels such as “undemocratic,” “authoritarian” and “oppressive.” One Australian man called it a “totalitarian one-party state.” An Australian woman described a “strongly focused government that will seek conformity from citizens.” Another 9% of respondents specifically pointed to communism or the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is set to convene its National Party Congress in October, when President Xi Jinping is expected to assume a third term.
In other responses to the Center’s survey, nearly a quarter of Australians who volunteered an answer (23%) mentioned some perceived threat that China poses to the world, their region, Australia or China’s own people. Most responses in this category focused on China’s general quest to be the most powerful country (7%) or its perceived poor international conduct (7%), including mentions of manipulation and bullying on the world stage. One Australian woman said she thought of China as “a country that ignores rules and gets away with it. A country that wants to dominate the world. A bully that has used Australia as an example to other countries that if you cross them they will punish you.”
Threats were more commonly top of mind for Australians ages 60 and older, as well as those who support Australia’s governing party – which, at the time of the survey, was the Liberal-National coalition, led by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (The current prime minister is Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party.)
For some Australians, China poses an economic or military threat (referenced by 4% each). Perceived economic threats included “working their way into different countries by lending,” using “trade sanctions to try and force their way or take revenge,” or simply “economic manipulation.” Mentions of China’s military included phrases such as “military strength,” “a military threat” or “military expansion.”
For roughly a quarter of Australians who volunteered an answer (23%), human rights abuses were one of the first things to come to mind when thinking of China, and 11% specifically mentioned lack of freedoms in the form of government repression and censorship. One man described the country as “a powerful, growing empire with a bad human rights record that uses a surveillance state and heavy censorship to keep its government in power with no real opposition.” Words like “conformity” and “thought control” also came up, as well as mentions of restricted freedom of expression for Chinese citizens.
The share of Australians who mentioned human rights included 4% who mentioned the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people, an ethnic minority group in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. Some explicitly used the word “genocide,” and others referenced “concentration” or “re-education” camps. One Australian woman said, “I have grave concerns about the Uyghurs and the way they are being rounded up and put into the so-called re-education centers. It seems as if there is another holocaust happening with these people.”
Roughly a fifth of Australian adults who offered an answer (18%) brought up the economy when thinking about China, including 4% who described the current state or growth of its economy. An Australian man referred to China as an “economic powerhouse that managed to bring a billion people out of poverty in a few decades with cheap labor.” Others focused on China’s manufacturing prowess (3%), including an Australian woman who called China “the world’s factory.” An equal share of Australians (3%) mentioned trade, including China’s tariffs on some Australian goods. Fewer mentioned topics such as cheap or poorly manufactured products, or China’s status as an economic powerhouse.
About one-in-ten Australians who provided an answer (8%) mentioned the size of China’s population in their responses. For example, one woman said, “Big population,” and another referenced “population overflow.”
A similar share of Australian respondents (7%) offered generally positive evaluations of China. Some of these respondents identified things associated with China, such as one woman who wrote, “pandas, the wall of China, dumplings.” Others mentioned China’s culture and history, including another woman who mentioned China’s “rich artistic, economic, trading and scientific history.” Positive responses were more common among Australians ages 18 to 29 than those 60 and older. When it comes to overall favorability of China, younger Australians also have more favorable views of China than older ones.
Australia called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in 2020, and a small share of Australians who volunteered an answer mentioned COVID-19 in their answers (6%). This included references to the origins of the coronavirus with mentions of “wet markets” and “Wuhan,” as well as references to China’s response to COVID-19. Others said they held China responsible for the pandemic due to insufficient containment efforts or alleged that the Chinese government engaged in a cover-up to conceal the country’s role in the spread of the virus. One woman said, “The first thing that comes to mind is selfish! If they had come forward when they were first aware of the risks of the virus and shut their borders to contain it, the world would not be suffering the way it is now.”
Another 6% of Australians who offered their views about China brought up the Chinese people. One woman said, “The people themselves are lovely, but the government is power hungry.” Another woman said, “[I] have worked with some lovely Chinese people but have concerns about the attitude of the country’s ruling party towards other countries and their policies.”
Some specifically referenced Chinese nationals abroad – especially those living in Australia – and a perception that they failed to assimilate to local culture. Others spoke to the long-standing history of people of Chinese origins living in Australia, such as one woman who said, “[There are] many Chinese living in Australia and have been for a long time and are part of our history. White Australia has often been racist towards Chinese.”
While the Chinese government received largely negative evaluations in Australians’ responses, only 1% of responses expressed negative views of the Chinese people (compared with the 4% of responses that described the people of China in a positive light). Negative responses included words such as “selfish” and “unsympathetic.” In contrast, positive sentiments mentioned traits such as “hard-working,” “ingenious” and “family oriented.”
A small share of Australian respondents (3%) brought up China’s environmental impact. One woman said she’s “been to China on business & for personal reasons. I’ve been north, south, east and a reasonable way west. I’ve never seen the horizon, because of the ever-present pollution.”
Another 3% of respondents spoke about China as a general or political world power. These included an Australian woman who called China a “world power with serious potential.”