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China’s growing influence fails to yield favorable opinions abroad: Pew Research Center

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to deputies at the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
October 05, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s growing influence on the world stage has not translated into favorable views of the country, according to a survey by a Washington-based think tank focusing on social issues and demographic trends, released as the East Asian nation marks the 70th anniversary of its founding.

The opinion of China throughout most of Western Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region is largely negative, the Pew Research Center said in its latest Global Attitudes survey, released on Tuesday, which polled nearly 35,000 people in 32 countries on how they view the country from May 13 to Aug. 29 this year.

In Western Europe, aside from Greece, nations viewed China unfavorably, with pluralities or majorities ranging from 53 percent in Spain to 70 percent in Sweden, while the share of people who evaluate China positively dropped since last year by double digits in nearly half of the countries surveyed in the region.

According to Pew’s survey, 60 percent of Americans and 67 percent of Canadians view China unfavorably—the highest unfavorable opinion of China for both countries in the Center’s polling history and marking the largest year-on-year change in either nation—which was attributed in part to trade tensions, as well as human rights abuses.

China was also viewed negatively amongst most of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, with 85 percent of Japanese saying they have an unfavorable opinion of the country. More than half of South Koreans, Australians, and Filipinos had similar opinions of China. These countries all have had trade, territorial or political influence disputes with China.

Pew said that the opinion of China fell across the Asia-Pacific region over the polling period and is now hovering at or near historic lows in each of the countries it surveyed—in particular in Indonesia, where opinion fell by 17 percentage points from a year earlier amid concerns over China’s treatment of ethnic Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Russians had the most positive view of China across all of the countries Pew surveyed, with 71 percent favorable, while a majority of Ukrainians—57 percent—also felt positively about the country.

More of the population in each of the Middle Eastern, Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries Pew polled held favorable views of China, from a low of 46 percent in South Africa to a high of 70 percent in Nigeria.

According to Pew, younger people held more positive views of China in most of the countries it surveyed, with adults ages 18-29 expressing more favorable opinions than those ages 50 and older in 20 nations.

Pew’s 2019 Global Attitudes survey followed one last year of 25 nations which found that in nearly all of the countries, a majority said China’s role in the world had increased over the past decade.

Split message

China held a grand military parade in Beijing on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of Communist rule, rolling out a significant amount of weaponry for display, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of deploying nuclear warheads.

After reviewing the fanfare, President Xi Jinping warned in a speech that “there is no force that can shake the status of this great nation, no force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”

But while China seeks to display its power abroad, its leaders are also concerned that the country is perceived as an aggressor, which can complicate its relations with other countries.

In a report on Wednesday, The New York Times quoted Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, as saying that China has difficulty understanding how other countries view it, and mostly only accepts positive feedback, rather than seeking to dispel fears that its behavior produces.

“China seems unable, probably due to its political system, to embrace the idea of strategic restraint: accepting binding commitments on its power as a way to reassure other countries China’s rise won’t hurt them,” he said.

The Times also cited Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University, as saying that while the Chinese government is more interested in impressing domestic audiences with displays of national strength like that on Tuesday, such moves can backfire if foreign powers escalate in response.

“So the Chinese government is trying to walk a very fine line, conveying strength at home while reassuring foreign audiences that China’s growing might does not pose a threat,” she said, adding that “in order for bluster to work, it requires exactly this kind of split message.”