Commodity, Victim, Aggressor : Media representations of Chinese international students

Sinophobia in Australian media is not overt but it is certainly dangerous.

In recent years, China’s growing dominance and geopolitical aspirations have sent shockwaves across a world that is still coming to terms with what is perhaps a changing international order. And no where have these shockwaves been felt more keenly than in Australia. This is reflected in our media, a quick skim of which will  reveal a fixation on our ties with China ,with numerous articles and segments put out on a daily basis updating the public on what is becoming an increasingly volatile relationship. Of particular interest is a concern about Chinese interference in Australian society. While Chinese interference in Australia seems all-pervasive and ever-present, it is actually a very recent national worry. Searching it up on Factiva, a news database, and localising it to ten major newspapers in Australia show that before 2017, unique articles which mentioned Chinese interference or influence,  whether they be news or opinion, averaged around 15 a year, with some years not even breaking into the double digits. However, everything changed in 2017 with the Sam Dastyari donation scandal, which saw him resign from his Senate position after it was exposed that he had informed prominent Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo that he might be under surveillance by Australian intelligence agencies.  Huang had previously donated around $44,000 to Dastyari, in a move that was suspected as being on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Later in 2017, the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced laws aimed at cracking down on foreign interference, and the number of articles about Chinese interference had soared to 331 from only 40 in 2016. If 2017 was the year when the fuse was lit, 2018 was when concerns about Chinese interference exploded, the media fixation skyrocketing to 747 articles. And with two months of the year left, almost 500 articles about Chinese interference have been published in 2019 by major Australian news outlets. 

However, as fears about Chinese interference increase in Australian society, so have fears that this anxiety could potentially spiral into something far more sinister. The unavoidable shadow of the increased media scrutiny on Chinese influence is the risk of spreading Sinophobic sentiment across Australian society. The gravity of such a risk cannot be understated. 1.2 million people of Chinese heritage call this country home — roughly 5.6% of our total population; Australia has the largest Chinese community percentage wise out of any country outside of Asia. At the locus of both these fears is a subset of the Chinese community in Australia — the 150,000 or so international students from Mainland China who are currently studying at an Australian tertiary institute. How these international students have been represented by the media has been a glaring point of public contention. While some argue that criticisms of the scrutiny placed on them seeks to use race as a means of deflecting conversation on Chinese interference, others believe the discussion has taken on an inflammatory nature that will further isolate what is already a vulnerable group of people.

Corpus Analysis

To unearth the hidden ideologies and patterns behind the media discourse surrounding international students from China in Australia, Honi undertook a corpus analysis of the reporting done on this topic. A research tool from linguistics, corpus analysis examines language from the bigger picture, allowing for incisions to be made on a large body of texts — a corpora — to reveal patterns of language that would not be seen if these texts were read separately, sentence by sentence. More importantly, it allows for a more quantitative evidential basis for phenomena which we intuit from anecdotes or our own “gut feeling.” Media discourse in particular represents a treasure trove for corpus analysis, for it can tell a great deal about the underlying ideologies and beliefs held by a society in the way it frames certain current affairs issues. In the past, it has been used to illuminate how the media’s use of language has reproduced and reinforced societal prejudices against groups such as refugees and transgender people. 

By using the terms “Chinese student” and its variations and combining it with the localising term “Australia”, we built a corpus of 95 news articles and 56 opinion pieces, all published in 2019, sourced from 10 major newspapers in Australia across different Australian states. We then analysed every instance in which the term “Chinese student(s)” appeared and the context it was framed by, in particular, noting the verbs which followed it. Our analysis found systematic language patterns which seemed to infer three separate categories in which the Australian media represents international students from mainland China – as a commodity, as a victim, and as an aggressor. 


Sitting at the forefront of national thought on China and the Chinese government, international Chinese students in Australia have become an avenue for the media to link ‘foreign interference’ with Australia’s dependence on Chinese trade. They are framed as income for Australia, cash cows, whose assumedly wealthy Chinese parents contribute to an ever dependent national economy. In our reading of over 95 news articles, most language associated with depictions of Chinese international students referenced was quantifiable and economically focussed. Many articles focussed on shifting higher cost markets and the boosting of revenue. Out of the 170 times the term “Chinese student(s)” was mentioned, 82 of them were couched with economic language. In the same way a resource such as iron or coal would be written about, our analysis showed a preoccupation with Chinese students as a “fee-paying” commodity that must be “bolstered” in response to a “flattening of growth” that signals the end of a “boom.”  And while it is clear that their presence on Australian campuses presents a risk (the word and its variations appearing more than 70 times), the majority of media references to risk are not political, but economic, and are often accompanied by terms such as “over-reliance” and “dependence.” 


With China’s growing geopolitical dominance and the advent of the Hong Kong protests, Chinese students have been deemed simultaneously both victims and aggressors. The media conceptualises them as aggressors, towards pro-Hong Kong protestors and Australia’s democratic institutions, yet they remain devoid of their own agency, shackled to an omnipresent and oppressive Communist government. In the corpus analysis of Chinese students in mainstream media opinion pieces, Chinese international students are linguistically associated with aggression, intimidation, spying and an “escalation of tensions.”They’re also recognised as being “disproportionately represented”, “living in Sydney’s Chinese bubble” and “surging”” into Australian universities enmass while “engaging in thuggery.” In news pieces, this linguistic association is not as strong, but still visible. International students from China do not win political power in campus elections, but “seize” it. They do not go to Canberra for a pro-Chinese government rally, but “descend” upon it. 

Part of the problem is that, given the increasing commercialisation of news in Australia, there is a tendency to focus reporting on sensational events that can draw  clicks and views while leaving out less eye-catching events which are equally important in painting out a complete portrait of the issue. This was noted in a tweet by USyd professor David Brophy, who remarked how pro-Hong Kong protests at USyd which happened without disruption, while attracting a significant physical presence of the main media establishments, generated no actual coverage. 

“If you only cover HK activism when there’s conflict, you risk creating an incentive for conflict,” his tweet concludes, referring to a past protest which ended in physical confrontations between pro-China and pro-Hong Kong protestors, and was frequently cited by media as an example of Chinese student aggression. 


Yet paradoxically, media representations conceptualise this aggression to hide a deep vulnerability and passivity. Their actions, though seen as violent, are not spurred by carefully cultivated personal belief or rational thinking, but is the result of being “mobilised” or “orchestrated” by some larger organisation in the background — the CCP. These conflicting traits of aggression and passivity often manifest in the same sentence, and can create an image of Chinese international students as being mindless fanatics. Likewise, more sympathetic media representations of Chinese students occur when they are the ones being “spied upon” or “intimidated.” Once again, the organisation behind this is the CCP. Further highlighting how intertwined these three categories are, representations of victimhood in Chinese people,brought about by Australian society as opposed to the CCP, is often coupled with references to negative economic consequences for Australia. 

Those Chinese people in Australia who sang the praises of local goods such as food, infant formula and healthcare products to their friends back home on WeChat and other social media sites — boosting the China sales of many Australian companies — are now also telling friends about the anti-China debate in Australia.

China Trade Tide slowing, The Australian, 25th September 2019

This reveals a wider societal thinking where we must care for Chinese people victimised by the CCP out of our commitment to Western liberal values, but when they are victimised by Australian society, we must care out of economic necessity.

While deep-seated “yellow-peril” fears underlies some of Australia’s increasing societal paranoia against Chinese international students and the larger Chinese-Australian community, it would be inaccurate to attribute this anxiety solely on racial tensions. This is especially given that a sizeable amount of the concern regarding Chinese influence in Australia comes from the Chinese community itself. However, with it has come a trend of certain outlets airing out more inflammatory comments about Chinese influence through critics of Chinese heritage — the seeming rationale being that their Chinese ethnicity both legitimises their opinion, and also shields it from any criticism. For example, in the latest edition of The Quarterly Essay, Feng Chongyi, a Chinese-Australian academic who was detained in China for a week in 2017, is quoted as saying;

“The majority of Chinese-Australians have been wavering politically… They are Australian citizens but they have never shown that to the Australian public. But hundreds of thousands of them will come out to wave the red flag to welcome Chinese government visitors.”

Red Flag, Peter Harcher, The Quaterly

Such sweeping statements position Chinese-Australians as a potential fifth column in Australian society, characterising them as being more loyal to the Chinese state than to their home country. Putting aside the dangerous implications of the statement, it exposes the tenuous position many Chinese-Australians currently find themselves in — a powder keg of legitimate concerns mixed with a growing paranoia about their loyalties.  

Nothing written in any of the newspapers analysed, even the most inflammatory of opinion pieces, can be said to be overtly Sinophobic. However, the underlying ideology reproduced through the language of the Australian media can be argued as being one where problematic, if not Sinophobic, inferences can be drawn and harmful stereotypes are perpetuated.

Anti-Hong Kong democracy protest in Sydney marred by ugly confrontations,”

The aforementioned incident in particular presents an alarming case study of how inflammatory reporting of Chinese international students can have damaging consequences for Australia’s Chinese community in general. In the Sydney Morning Herald article “Anti-Hong Kong democracy protest in Sydney marred by ugly confrontations, Chinese protestors at the event are reduced to jingoistic slogans and disturbing threats of violent. It states that the protestors were there to support “Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong” without explaining what these policies actually are. While it is undeniable that “ugly confrontations” did occur during the protest, the report prioritises eye-catching outbursts of violence from the protestors over an exploration of the motives behind their protest. Instead of featuring a protestor explaining their reasons for protesting, it outsources this work to official sources, the Chinese ambassador, thus framing the protestors as devoid of any real agency or independent thought. This is in stark contrast to an SBS news report on the same protest, which does not shy away from reporting on the violent actions and words of some protestors, but contextualises this with quotes from more moderate protestors giving reasoned explanations about why they attended the rally. While the SMH article generalises the “anti-Hong kong democracy” protestors as “mainland protestors,” the SBS article instead highlights the diversity of the attendees, stating that they were “new migrants, international students and second or third generation Chinese-Australians.” Finally and most interestingly is the question of translation. At the rally, a Chinese protestor is heard saying into a loudspeaker “滚出去” with regards to Hong Kong protestors; the SBS report translated this into “get out” while the SMH one translated it into the more inflammatory “get the f–k out.” While an argument can be made for both translations, this example highlights how translation itself can be used as a tool to frame a news story in order to advance a certain narrative. Unsurprisingly, the SMH article elicited an outraged response from the Australian public. On the r/Australia subreddit, a “A dusty corner on the internet where you can chew the fat about Australia and Australians” with almost 380 thousand members, a post sharing the article amassed numerous comments calling for the mass deportation and surveillance of Chinese Australians. While some commentators were careful to distinguish between the different groups of Chinese-Australians, others used the article as an opportunity to air larger racial grievances against Chinese-Australians seemingly taking over Australia. More disturbingly, many of the top comments in thread seemed to suggest that race riots directed against Chinese-Australians were inevitable should these “Pro-China” protests continue.

“Let me know when the race riots are scheduled. Having scumbags on Visas, protest in a foreign land about the benefits of oppression, is something I feel is only resolved with beating.” one comment reads.

USYD Rants as a microcosmic forum

The mainstream anti-Chinese sentiment that has cascaded about the Australian public sphere of late is alarmingly recognisable in the online spaces in which University students engage. Facebook page USYDRants, the locally iconic hub of student sentiment produces a daily linguistic representation of student opinion. It is here that our original search began, where student thought is unedited and university bureaucracy is removed from the conversation. 

What’s particularly important to note is that the rise of these online blasts correlate with the rise of international student representation in student politics as much as they interact with the focus of ‘foreign interference’ in the mainstream media. Since last year, when the University of Sydney Student Representative Council saw its presidency won by Chinese domestic student Jacky He and headkicker of one of the major international student factions on campus, Panda, a wave of ‘foreign interference’ narratives have made gains in University campuses across the country. This year a government taskforce was released, a Four Corners report brought producers to Eastern Avenue and the university was forced to condemn an unregulated survey that asked students if international students should be restricted from student politics. The pages of USYD Rants reflects these transformations that now appear to be at the forefront of student consciousness. 

The rise of Sinophobic commentary in USYD Rants peaks in the same way that we have seen an emergence of anti-Chinese sentiment in the headlines of major Australian publications. The last year has seen an exponential rise in this kind of language and phrasing. Though the rants of individual students reflect similar anxieties of the Australian mainstream media landscape, these are more centralised, more individually punitive. The major panics of anonymous university student blasts are associated with either an ‘invasion’ of what they deem to be their space or a depiction of Chinese international students as dishonest, lazy and deviant.

In a study of up to 50 USYD Rants posted sporadically throughout the year of 2019, one can see a pattern of students considering international students’ positions in Australian universities to be undeserved; a breakdown, if you will, of the power and prestige of this sandstone edifice. Overwhelmingly, the posts either centred or included the ‘use’ or ‘misuse’ of language in education spaces. Over 90% of these rants suggested that international students should either be learning more English before they commenced their studies, that English was the only language that should be taught in university settings, that international students should not find it hard to “get by with a foreign language” and that standards of ‘language and communication’ at the university were being pulled down by the presence of international students in tutorials. One rant for example reads, “I don’t understand the arguments that highlight the difficulties of living internationally and having to get by with a foreign language. This is a university, it should require the highest standards of language and communication.” Though the rants, amassed together, paint a picture of the ‘othering’ of international students by domestic students across the board, many of these ‘ranters’ go to great lengths to separate themselves from the label of racist. One rant reads “I don’t understand how it is racist to expect a professional level of English ability from your classmates in a university course with English language instruction – I’ve had issues with people from ALL parts of the world in this respect.”

Geographically, the descriptions of these rants are often situated in the university’s libraries — an environment overcrowded with hundreds of students desperately attempting to find a place to focus. The second most common location is the tutorial room in which group coursework encourages domestic student engagement with international students. In and outside of these spaces, comments on the admission of international students to degrees regardless of intelligence and the university’s ‘reliance’ on international students are commonly discussed.

The danger within

Research has shown that the ramifications of interactions between Western and Chinese students can more often than not lead to more open hostility. As Henry Chiu Hail has noted in his 2015 research paper ‘Patriotism Abroad: Overseas Chinese Students’ Encounters With Criticisms of China’, assumptions of Chinese life and governance by Western students has more often than not left Chinese international students feeling isolated and disconnected from the country in which they’re studying. Anti-Chinese sentiment is no doubt rising in the West and it can now be found in our very own quadrangle, obfuscated by the language of our media.  While Australia must remain vigilant about Chinese interference in our society, we must keep an equally vigilant eye on how the media we consume, whether it be newspapers or Facebook rants, perpetuates harmful ideologies about Chinese people, particularly international students. For if we are not, the greatest threat to our nation’s democracy is not some foreign actor, but ourselves.

The newspapers used in the analysis are;
The Advertiser (Adelaide)
The Age (Melbourne)
The Australian Financial Review
The Australian
Canberra Times (Canberra)
Courier Mail (Brisbane)
Daily Telegraph (Sydney)
The Herald Sun (Melbourne)
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney)
The West Australian (Perth)

Corpus analysis was carried out using AntConc, developed
by Laurence Anthony