Business leaders and university vice-chancellors are holding signs saying “Australia welcomes you” as part of a campaign that hopes to repair the damage from Australia’s political stoush with China and reassure prospective tourists and students that Australia is safe and welcoming.
Launching Monday, the campaign bringing together universities, business and community groups is a signal of how seriously local interests are taking the risk to Australia’s image in China posed by tensions over the coronavirus, geopolitics and racism.
Co-ordinated by Australian businessman and ACBC member Jason Yatsen Li, the campaign also involves the Australia China Business Council, the University of Sydney, the University of UNSW and Sydney’s University of Technology. Major hotel groups Accor and Hyatt are likely to take part, and the University of Melbourne has been approached to join.
Pitched to a Chinese audience, the campaign will use social networks such as Weibo and WeChat to spread the message “Australia Welcomes You”. Mr Li said the aim was to elevate the voices of ordinary people above the heated political fray.
“We hear so much about the politics around this, but it’s often regular people and regular businesses that get caught in the crossfire,” he said. “I think a lot of young Chinese Australians are just over it.”
China has criticised Australia’s calls for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, and increased tariffs on beef and barley imports in a move widely seen as at least partly retaliatory.
In June, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism advised citizens not to travel to Australia due to “an alarming increase” in racial discrimination. Australia’s Tourism and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham rejected that assertion as having “no basis in fact”.
But days later China’s education ministry issued a warning about Chinese students returning to Australia after the pandemic, referring to “multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians”.
“That in a way really wedged everyone,” Mr Li told The Sun-Herald. “There has been racism. But does that mean that Australia isn’t safe for tourists and students? That’s obviously not the case.”
There are varying views on how seriously those government missives are taken in China. David Olsson, chair of the Australia China Business Council, said he still believed the two countries’ relationship was strong despite the political and diplomatic problems.
“We’ve got work we have to do to deal with these issues,” he said. “We can’t underestimate that things that are played out in the press have an impact. We want to go on the front foot here.
The ACBC will ask its 800 corporate members and wider network of 20,000 subscribers to support the campaign. “We want to dispel any myths that exist and really get that positive view around the warmth of the welcome that Chinese tourists and students will receive when they come here,” Mr Olsson said.
About 350 overseas students are expected to travel to Canberra later this month as part of a pilot scheme for face-to-face international education under COVID-19 which could be rolled out in other states. The students will be quarantined for two weeks in a hotel, funded by the universities.
University of NSW staff who are photographed holding signs as part of the campaign include vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs, vice-president of external relations Fiona Docherty and pro vice-chancellor (international) Laurie Pearcey. The images will be run on WeiBo, WeChat and other networks.
Mr Pearcey, a fluent Mandarin speaker, said he was confident education, tourism and business ties would enable the China-Australia relationship “to transcend any rifts at a political or diplomatic level”.
Mr Li, who heads corporate advisory firm YSA and has contested elections for Labor, wants the campaign to spread beyond board rooms and universities. “We’d love to have some Crocodile Dundee-type characters in the back of Bourke holding up a sign saying ‘Welcome’,” he said.