The missing stories of the Asian Century

This Friday the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 18th National Congress.

The event will anoint Xi Jinping as President as well as making decisions on an economy that, while still outperforming the rest of the world by a considerable margin, is starting to slow down. Think of it as the ultimate gathering of faceless men.

As Australia’s largest trading partner, any decisions made by China will affect everything from employment levels in the Pilbara to the budget surplus in Canberra.

Yet if you quizzed a random punter at Flemington this week, they would likely be unaware hundreds of grey-suited party members are about to decide how much of our iron ore to continue buying.

Contrast this anonymity to the almost hyperawareness the Australian public has of the American Presidential election.

Not only does the election lead the overseas coverage of our more serious broadsheets, it also features in tabloids like the Herald Sun, which normally only ventures overseas if the AFL is playing an exhibition match.

The ABC and its commercial TV counterparts regularly send their correspondents to cover campaign rallies and interview locals, many of whom are clearly surprised Austrian journalists can speak such good English.

The presidential race is no longer just a news story but has crossed over to the wider entertainment media. Comedians on shows like the Hamster Wheel and The Project can comment on the election confident their audience will get their references.

We all know Mitt Romney is comically rich while Barack Obama is married to a beautiful pair of forearms. The candidates are as familiar to Australians as Mel and Kochie.

Thanks to a poll conducted by UMR Research, we even know 72 per cent of Australians would vote for Obama. If a similar poll was held to gauge our support of potential Chinese leaders I fear the winner would be Gangnam Style rapper Psy.

From a purely pragmatic point of, the appeal of the US election is obvious. Not only do they speak our language but the contest can be reduced to such a simple yet compelling story. Obama versus Romney, left versus right and (dare we say it) black versus white.

Add supporting characters like gun-toting fundamentalists and vacuous Hollywood celebrities who are all willing to talk about politics despite their obvious ignorance and you have a ratings winner.

Of course the politics of America, like China, has a trickle down effect on Australia and the election does deserve a high level of coverage.

But when Channel 10 sent stand up comedian Charlie Pickering to America this week, he wasn’t reporting on American engagement in the Pacific or an end to the mission in Afghanistan. No, he was doing a story on presidential dogs. This from the same network that gutted its Brisbane newsroom last week.

Unfortunately the Chinese congress lacks colour and movement that characterises the US election.

There is no local equivalent of Jay Leno to banter with current president Hu Jintao, no Chinese Tea Party to demand Xi Jinping prove he wasn’t born in Taiwan. The congress itself doesn’t have a Twitter hashtag so I can’t even make my lame “Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” pun.

It is simply a gathering of serious men in serious haircuts trying to figure out how to maintain the double-digit economic growth needed to prevent civil unrest on a scale that would make the current riots in Greece look like Schoolies Week.

The lack of coverage the congress receives reflects the lower level of importance Australian media organisations place on China According to the website of the Australian embassy in China, only six Australian journalists are registered to report in the country, none of them from commercial television networks. Three are from Fairfax, two from the ABC and its affiliate the Australian Network while News Corporation has one.

Meanwhile, the ranks of Australian correspondents in the US include The Australian’s Brad Norrington, Fairfax’s Nick O’Malley, Channel 7’s Mike Amor and Angela Cox, Channel 9’s Robert Penfold and Denham Hitchcock, Channel Ten’s Daniel Sutton and the ABC’s Jane Cowan, Craig McMurtrie and Lisa Millar. Joining them especially for the election are the aforementioned Pickering, Crikey writer-at-large Guy Rundle and the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

The Federal Government’s recent white paper on Asian engagement articulated the challenges facing Australia as the global balance of power shifted to our north. It will take more than weekly Mandarin classes to better understand the region and the media has its part to play.

Yes, events like the Communist Party congress are rather dry subjects and yes, a story about Romney’s magic Mormon underpants probably would get more website hits.

But if the media still has any vestigial notions of public service, it must invest more time and resources to tell the stories that affect us during the Asian Century.

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