What China’s Australia poll tells Aussie businesses about the Mainland Chinese market

By Dr Dan Hu, Deputy Director, Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University

Beyond official trade restraints and embargoes penetrating the Chinese market is going to prove tougher for Australian exporters, writes Dan Hu. Chinese consumers have taken their lead from Beijing and cooled on brand Australia.

It is no secret that Australian exports to China target the high-end consumers. This may apply to all foreign brands but particularly so for Aussie exporters who are heavily concentrated in consumer goods, education and tourism.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics concludes that since the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) went into effect, there have been significant increases in goods exports, including “meat (in particular beef), medicinal and pharmaceutical products, and beverages (in particular red wine)”. Education and tourism are by far the top two service exports to the mainland market.

But an in-depth analysis of the preferences of consumers who responded to a recent poll on Chinese perceptions of Australia and the bilateral relationship shows that a predictable across-the-board cooling of sentiment is marked in the very income and other demographic groups Australian exporters are targeting.

The Australia in the Eyes of the Chinese Poll was launched by the Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Australian Studies Centre and the Global Survey Centre in June 2020, as the first poll on Chinese public attitudes to Australia and bilateral relations. The 2021 poll is the second in the series.

Conducted by Data 100, a leader in social and market research in China, the poll surveyed 2067 adults (between the ages of 18 and 69) between 11 and 15 June. Respondents were located in ten major Chinese cities (defined in China as “first-tier” or “new first-tier” cities), including Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Kunming, Qingdao, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan, Xi’an, and Zhengzhou.

Of those respondents, 76.3 percent belonged to the mid-and-high income group (measured as $1,000 per month or above) and 68.17 percent had a bachelor or higher degree.

The survey explores the impact of several constitutive factors, including gender, age, education and income, on feelings towards Australia. Respondents were asked to “rate feelings towards Australia” with a number between 0 and 100 indicating the two extremes of sentiment. The higher the number, the warmer the feelings. Australia scored 65.3 points last year on this ‘favorability barometer’; this year, the measure slid ten points to 55.6.

Education

A consistent pattern can be detected from last and this year’s results: the higher the educational attainment, the higher favourability towards Australia. In 2021, for example, when prompted to describe their feelings towards Australia individuals with education to Year 9 or less ranked their perception of Australia at only 51.53 points. But favourability increased with the respondents’ education level, with individuals who were educated to Year 12 ranking Australia at 52.46, Junior College Graduates ranking Australia at 53.66, university bachelor degree graduates at 55.90, masters’ degree graduates at 61.18, and doctoral graduates at 69.84. That correlation was consistent with last year’s results, although favourability had slipped in all education categories, especially at the top end.

Chinese university graduates at job fair
University graduates attend a local job fair in Jiujiang. This demographic overall holds more favourable views towards Australia than groups with less education. Image credit: humphery, Shutterstock. 

Income

What may disappoint the marketers is that the factor of income seems to be less relevant, or not as clear-cut as education. The impact of income level on good feelings towards Australia seems to be less significant than education, with a much smaller spread.

In addition, results in both years show that favourability peaks for those on monthly incomes of between Rmb 6,000-9,999 ($ 1,200-1,999) and starts to decrease beyond them. The two highest income groups — $2,000-3,999 and $4,000 and above — produced results that were close to the poll’s average.

For instance, people earning $4,000 or more scored 62.31 in good feelings towards Australia in 2020. This was the fourth lowest score among the ten income groups and three points less than the average. This year, the favorability rating slipped four-points to 58.77.

Meanwhile, the $2,000-3,999 in 2021 recorded 54.91, the second lowest among the groups and lower than the average of 55.61.

It is worrying that the top two income groups, which Australian goods and services target most consistently, score lower-than-average favourability towards Australia.

Gender

In the meantime, cross-tabulation does suggest some patterns that may mean good news for Australian businesses. For example, women consistently favour Australia more than men, which may bode well for certain consumer products and travel. Chinese women routinely make family decisions on purchases of groceries even travel, although not necessarily on wine and overseas education.

In 2020, female respondents recorded 67.56 in favourability towards Australia, against 63.17 among males. While favourability ratings of both women and men declined this year, the gender gap widened with women registering a favourability rating of 60.00 and men holding a rating of 51.38.

This gender differentiation seems to be consistent throughout the poll responses: men are more likely than women to rate Australia as “a political or ideological threat”, see relations with Australia “not that important” and have a bleaker picture of the future of bilateral relations, and less likely than women to see Australia as China’s best friend, choose to travel in Australia and significantly less to study in Australia.

Age

Mirroring a recent Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes to China, the under 30s in China have proved to be the most welcoming age group towards Australia. But that also means the main age group the majority of Australian retail products and services target — those between 30 and 59 years old — view Australia less favourably. They are the major buyers of a steak priced between $30 to $100, of expensive overseas trips, and of overseas education for children.

In spite of the mixed messages, one trend is clear: public sentiment in China has cooled down towards Australia.

As the gender-related pattern indicates, one critical implication for Australian businesses still wanting to target the mainland Chinese market is their increasing inability to establish or maintain a favourable image of brand “Australia”. With deteriorating official relations and bombardment of negative images across media, the two competing depictions of Australia — “natural, healthy, laid-back and friendly” versus “Ideological or military threat” — will remain in tension.

The lesson for Australian business is that it will probably have to save its marketing dollars and bide its time. The image problem for Australian products is inexorably linked to the diplomatic problem.

Dr. Dan Hu is Associate at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies of The University of Melbourne and Assistant Professor & Deputy Director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She is the Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies and Deputy Chief Editor of Australia Blue Book.

Banner image: Shoppers stroll through the central Chengdu shopping district, China - April 4, 2020. Credit: B.Zhou, Shutterstock.