Fabien Baussart
Fabien Baussart

Global Perceptions of China

The latest Pew Research Centre Survey on China (PRC Survey) of June, 2021 finds that in the 14 advanced economies of Europe, in Asia-Pacific, Canada, and the United States, surveyed in 2020 and in New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan surveyed in Spring 2021, most citizens had openly expressed unfavourable views about China. Not a one off sentiment, poll records reflect that this sort of an adverse response to China has consistently grown over the last decade. With 81% negative outlook, Australia has seen a rise of up to 24 percentage points since last year whereas in the UK, around 75% survey respondents seemed to have negative views up by almost 19 points. No doubt, the Donald Trump Presidency had a significant role in putting China in the spotlight and has contributed in enhancing this unpleasant worldview by nearly 20 percentage points.1

China’s handling of the coronavirus in 2020, the pandemic year has been the foremost factor in fueling such a high negative perception of China. The criticism of Chinese conduct at the time of the outbreak made 61% of people surveyed across the 14 nations dissatisfied with that country’s response to the situation.2 The number is more than their own government’s disapproval or that of other international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the European Union (EU). Many major economies like the US, Japan and the Euro Zone did decline economically in 2020 amidst the pandemic, while the Chinese economy continued to achieve relative growth.3 Against this background, in a moment of crisis, China sustained its aggressive assertions on the world stage, be it the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hongkong, India etc. which significantly enhanced its negative imprint globally. In the decade between 2010-2020 the PRC Survey found that even in countries like Spain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, US, UK, South Korea, Sweden and Australia, adverse views about China had stretched to its ultimate peak.

Admittedly, China’s management of the corona virus pandemic has been a significant contributor in its overall assessment and perception as a country.4 The intensified negative outlook of China has grown considerably since the events of last year. Australia’s ruffle with Chinese wolf-warrior diplomacy was premised on the former’s insistence to investigate the role of China in the COVID-19 origin which was subsequently followed with fiery economic and trade abrasions. Since the signs of tension between the two countries show no signs of abating, China has been vehemently blocking Australian interests in world trade bodies and attempting to harm the country economically.

Impacted by Chinese policies, the Asia-Pacific region has developed varied sentiments about whether to address the abuse of human rights in China at the cost of hampering its economic relations. While a majority of the population in New Zealand (80%), Australia (78%) and Japan (54%) concentrate on supporting human rights, many in South Korea and Singapore focus on boosting economic interactions. Consequently, there is no clear unanimity among countries about prioritizing human rights or developing economic connections with China. However, as seen in the survey, irrespective of the political engagement between nations, the impression that China does not appreciate the personal freedoms of its citizens is at an all time high amongst most people studied in 2021.5

Another important aspect that influenced the perception about China in the survey is the age factor. Typically, grown-up old people saw China more damagingly than younger people, primarily in Australia, South Korea and the US. As a matter of divergence, education featured as a crucial element in the public valuation of China. In each of the 14 countries surveyed in Europe, people with a post-secondary degree or higher level of education were likewise expected to have critical understanding of China as compared to those with lower education. In terms of gender, both men and women were similarly poised to have critical views of China in approximately all countries that were surveyed. Other than the US where the Republicans seemed more averse than the Democrats, in no other country did ideology matter in terms of an assessment about China, whether liberal or conservative.

As such, China’s response to the outbreak has been critiqued worldwide and the measures or the lack of it applied by Beijing to contain the virus within Wuhan, have been seriously questioned. A median of 61% among the 14 European countries had the opinion that China has poorly handled the corona virus outbreak. However, the most adverse appraisals of China’s COVID-19 management came from the three nations in the Asia-Pacific region- Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The PRC Survey also conducted another research comparing attitudes toward the US and China among 18,850 people in 17 advanced economies6 which indicated that observations about China continued to be largely negative. In most states surveyed, belief in the Chinese President Mr. Xi Jinping lingered at a historic low, while trust in the new US President, Mr. J Biden, was reportedly higher in the wake of his swearing in. In a major awakening for China, around half or more surveyed also declared that it is more crucial for their country to have robust economic relations with the US rather than with China.7

The PRC Survey results thus raise pertinent questions about the capability and confidence of the Chinese President Mr. Xi Jinping and his political party, the CCP. Given the fact that the CCP has begun celebrating its 100th year with much aplomb, such drastic disapproval ratings across the world for China should lead to some serious reflections. 78% of the participants mentioned having a negative feeling when it comes to Xi’s role in global affairs. Countries from Europe such as Sweden, France and Denmark reported having little trust in President Xi Jinping. In terms of leadership, the Survey measured confidence in five world leaders wherein assurance was placed more on European leaders like German Chancellor Ms. Angela Merkel, French President Mr. Emmanuel Macron and the UK Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson who were trusted more in comparison to Xi Jinping and the Russian President Mr. Vladimir Putin.

Another Pew Research Report 20218 reflects on the diplomatic question confronting China as it endeavours to establish increasing authority in the global arena. Whether it would continue its wolf warrior tactics and ride alone on the path to supremacy or whether it would believe in a more collaborative and cooperative framework for a rule based order. As is known, Mr. Xi Jinping recently encouraged Chinese representatives & diplomats to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable”9 impression about the country in a signal that Beijing may be considering softening its confronting diplomatic attitude.

Last year, in January 2020, when China wrecked havoc globally with the virus from Wuhan, the epicenter of the Covid 19 pandemic, spreading all over, several nations reacted to China’s request for assistance by dispatching face masks, medicines and other necessities.

Interestingly, Beijing at this time demanded that the donor countries should not advertise their contributions to China as this would affect Chinese credibility on the world stage. Later however, when the virus proliferated beyond its border, Beijing savoured taking on the title of being a sponsor, a benefactor even though in many instances the supplies it was providing other countries were proven defective. To add salt to their wound, China also demanded beneficiary countries to publicly convey appreciation for its efforts which only served as a cause for embarrassment since these pandemic devastated countries knew that COVID-19 itself had emerged from China and owed its origin to the Wuhan province in that country. This duplicitous arrogance is a major rationale behind the depressing attitude that many countries developed regarding China.10 In overwhelmingly 9 countries: Australia, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, US, UK, South Korea and Canada, the pessimistic viewpoints against China have attained their highest points ever since the Pew group began surveying on this topic more than a decade ago. To save its true face, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mr. Wang Wenbin condemned the Survey findings stating that the poll by the Pew Centre is only prepared by a few and cannot stand for the entire global community.”11

As US President J Biden develops his China strategy, there is an intensified backing for the administration to take stronger steps targeted at changing Beijing’s conduct across the globe.12 90% Americans perceive China as a rival or an adversary and almost half consider that the US should pursue to restrict China’s clout.13 There has also been escalating pressure over trade and the part being played by Chinese technology companies with State support such as Huawei in western markets. Amongst other nations, UK and Australia are some of the prominent ones to have eliminated Huawei from their plans of establishing 5G networks.14

There is also an understanding amongst China observers that public assessments of China are much more nuanced and diverged which cannot be rapidly attributed to a straightforward dichotomy. At a moment in time, when nations around the world are struggling to cope with the rise of a belligerent China, a monumental crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic which brought with it massive causalities affecting every possible country on this earth, has shaken the international community with the public opinion tilted towards accountability seeking answers from those responsible for this mayhem worldwide.15

1 L Silver, K Devlin, C Huang, Unfavourable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries, Pew Research Centre, October 6, 2020. Accessed from: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/30/large-majorities-say-china-does-not-respect-the-personal-freedoms- of-its-people
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 O Churchill, Negative views of China continue to dominate its international image, survey finds, South China Morning Post, 30 June 2021. Accessed from: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3139241/negative-views-china-continue-dominate-its- international-image
5 L Silver, K Devlin, C Huang, Large Majorities Say China Does Not Respect the Personal Freedoms of Its People, Pew Research Centre, June 30, 2021. Accessed from: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/30/large-majorities-say-china-does-not-respect-the-personal-freedoms- of-its-people/
6 Ibid.
7 L Silver, China’s international image remains broadly negative as views of the U.S. rebound, Pew Research Centre, June 30, 2021, Accessed from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/30/chinas-international-image- remains-broadly-negative-as-views-of-the-u-s-rebound/
8 L Silver, K Devlin, C Huang, Large Majorities Say China Does Not Respect the Personal Freedoms of Its People, Pew Research Centre, June 30, 2021. Accessed from: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/30/large-majorities-say-china-does-not-respect-the-personal-freedoms- of-its-people/
9 Xi Seeks ‘Lovable’ Image for China in Sign of Diplomatic Rethink, Bloomberg News, June 1, 2021. Accessed from:
10 F Ching, China shocked to discover the developed world views it in a negative light, The Japan Times, October 27, 2020. Accessed from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/10/27/commentary/world-commentary/china- developed-world-negative-sentiment/
11 Negative Views of China Persist Despite Covid Gains, Pew Finds, Bloomberg News, June 30, 2021. Accessed from:
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-30/u-s-views-on-china-harden-amid-human-rights-disputes-pew- finds
12 James T. Areddy, Americans’ Views on China Go From Bad to Worse, The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2021. Accessed from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/americans-negative-views-on-china-spike-polls-show-11614870001
13 Ibid.
14 Reuters, Negative views of China soar in western countries, poll finds, The Guardian, 7 October 2020, Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/07/negative-views-of-china-soar-in-western-countries-poll-finds 15 Li, X. More than Meets the Eye: Understanding Perceptions of China Beyond the Favorable-Unfavorable Dichotomy, St Comp Int Dev 56, 68-86 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-021-09320-1

About the Author
Fabien Baussart is the President of CPFA (Center of Political and Foreign Affairs)
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