Pew Survey shows that much of the world doesn’t see China as a warm and fuzzy country
China has a serious image problem when it comes to how it is viewed globally. A Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey (https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2023/07/27/views-of-china-methodology/) released late last month casts a harsh spotlight on global opinions about the People’s Republic and its treatment of other countries. The report surveyed attitudes across 16 high-income and 8 middle-income countries. The high-income countries included the US, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the UK, France, Spain, Greece, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Germany, Hungary, and Israel. The middle-income countries included Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, and India.
Aggregating attitudes across these two groups yields a negative view of China and its international behavior. Just over a quarter (28%) of those questioned across all 24 countries had favorable views of China compared with the over two-thirds (67%) with unfavorable views. Some 57% agreed that China interferes in the affairs of other countries vs. the 35% saying it does not. Close to three-quarters (71%) said that China does not contribute to global peace and stability compared to the 23% who say it does. And by a slightly higher margin, 76 to 22%, those surveyed disagreed with the claim that China takes into account the interests of countries like the ones they live in.
While these numbers pretty bad, the news is not entirely grim for China. Opinions regarding the country and its actions differ markedly between the high-income countries, where negative feelings about the People’s Republic are very strong, and the middle income, where opinions are more mixed and, In some cases, mildly to highly positive. The Pew Survey also reveals that in the both high- and middle-income countries surveyed, China is seen as a highly innovative country technologically. By contrast, the narrative of China as a rising economic superpower poised to overtake the US is much stronger among high-income countries than it is among middle-income countries. In the rest of the post, I’ll break down these findings and review their implications for China.
In all but four of the high-income countries, the share of those surveyed with highly negative views on China ranges from 66 to 87% in the Pew Survey. This group includes two countries that have recently greatly benefited from close economic ties with China, Germany and Australia, where highly unfavorable views of China are held by 77 and 87% of Germans and Australians, respectively. The four high-income countries with less negative views about China are Italy (58%), Israel (50%), Hungary (52%), and Greece (51%). Hungary and Italy are two of the three countries where unfavorable views about China have declined; the other is South Korea, where the share of people with highly negative views vis-à-vis their Chinese neighbor dipped slightly from 80% in 2022 to 77% in 2023.
Among the middle-income countries in the Pew Survey, India is the only one where China is viewed unfavorably. Some 67% of Indians surveyed had highly unfavorable views of China, reflecting the negative impact of border clashes on Sino-Indian relations. In the other middle-income countries, highly unfavorable views of China are held by less than half of the population. In Brazil and South Africa, that share ranges from 40-48%, in Mexico and Argentina, between 34-35%, and in Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia, from 15-25%. China’s more favorable rating among the last three countries surely reflects the large amount of Chinese investment directed at them as part of the ambitious 1 Belt, 1 Road global infrastructure development scheme. Save for Brazil and India, the share of those surveyed with a favorable view of China exceeded those with unfavorable views of it. However, these favorable shares were under 50% save for Kenya (72%), Nigeria (80%), and Mexico (57%).
Pew also surveyed opinions regarding Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Interestingly, Xi is viewed more negatively than China as a country across just about all of the cases in the Pew study. In all but three high-income countries, an overwhelming majority, over 70%, of those surveyed, expressed no or little confidence in Xi’s leadership. The three outliers are Italy (67%), Hungary (59%), and Greece (54%). Xi is also not well liked in the middle-income countries. Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa are the only countries where the share of those expressing some to high confidence in his leadership exceed the share of those with no to little confidence in it. Out of those three, Kenya and Nigeria were the only ones where the share of those with positive views about Xi exceeded 50% (62% for Nigeria, 81% for Nigeria). These findings underscore how Xi, in marked contrast to Deng Xiaoping, has been a real drag on China’s attempt to exert “soft power” globally. With Xi likely to remain in power for years to come, this does not auger well for future Chinese efforts in this area.
There is yet more bad news for China in the Pew Survey regarding its international behavior. When asked if China’s foreign policy accounts for their country’s interests, the share of those surveyed in all but two high-income countries saying “no” ranged from 73 to 93% (in most countries in this group the share saying “no” exceeded 80%). The two outliers here are Poland (64%) and Hungary (68%). Among middle-income countries, over half of those surveyed answered “yes” to the question in Indonesia (53%), South Africa (56%), Kenya (64%), and Nigeria (71%). As was the case in India, a majority of those surveyed in Mexico (53%), Argentina (61%), and Brazil (50%) did not agree that China accounts for the interests of their countries when conducting its foreign policy. These figures for Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are striking, given their relatively high favorability ratings for China as a country.
An identical pattern prevails regarding views on whether China contributes to international peace and stability. Once again, the answer from the overwhelmingly majority of those surveyed in high-income countries to the question is a resounding “no.” And once again, a plurality or majority answer yes to this question in the four middle-income countries of Indonesia (54%), South Africa (47%), Kenya (51%), and Nigeria (68%).
While China is clearly not beloved in most of the world, the Pew Report findings indicate that its technological prowess is generally held in high regard internationally. Solid to overwhelming majorities of those surveyed in every country, save for South Korea and India, had a very high regard for Chinese technology. These feelings are not at all unfounded, as China has surged ahead technologically in areas like green energy (https://www.npr.org/2023/05/17/1173250926/solar-power-eu-germany-china), electric vehicles (https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/02/21/1068880/how-did-china-dominate-electric-cars-policy/), and artificial intelligence and big data.
In marked contrast to views about Chinese technological strength, opinions differ sharply between high-income vs. middle-income countries regarding whether China is the world’s top economy. On this question, opinions favoring China are more widely held in high-income countries. When asked who has the larger economy, the US or China, a plurality of those surveyed by Pew in Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy choose China, with the shares saying that ranging from 40-48%. A majority of respondents in Italy (55%) and Australia (50%) also chose China over the US. In none of the middle-income countries was China seen as having a bigger economy than the US. These perceptions dovetail with the widely held belief across middle- and low-income in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia that beside having the world’s dominant economy, America arbitrarily wields its economic power to set rules for weaker countries to follow. That view, in turn, helps explain why China is viewed more favorably outside advanced economies in North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia. Conversely, beliefs about the size of China’s economy among high-income countries in the Pew Report reflect widespread fears of rising Chinese economic power and influence.
That large numbers of people in high-income countries telling Pew that China has the world’s largest is rather puzzling. In 2022, when measured in dollar terms (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/07/business/economy/us-china-relationship-facts.html), the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) totaled $25.5 trillion while China’s GDP came to $18 trillion. With economic growth in China slowing in the face of demographic, debt and other headwinds, forecasters are now predicting that it will take decades for its GDP to overtake that of the US (https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/China-s-GDP-unlikely-to-surpass-U.S.-in-next-few-decades-JCER). Some economists, notably former chief economist at UBS and now research associate at the Oxford University China Center, George Magnus (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/dec/28/from-economic-miracle-to-mirage-will-chinas-gdp-ever-overtake-the-us), argues that China may never surpass the US as the world’s largest economy. With China’s GDP per capita amounting to only 17% of the US GDP per capita (https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPDPC@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD), living standards for ordinary Chinese are even less likely to fully catch with those of ordinary people in Europe, North America, and advanced economies in Asia.
To sum up, the latest Pew Center findings regarding global perceptions of China and its international behavior should set off alarm bells in Beijing. To be sure, China is favorably viewed in some middle-income countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America. But Chinese leaders should not take much solace in that. To start with, save for Kenya and Nigeria, China’s positive approval ratings among middle-income countries in the Pew survey are dwarfed by the supermajorities viewing it negatively in high-income countries. Moreover, high income countries matter a great deal more to the Chinese economy than middle-income countries when it comes to trade and investment. This makes it much more important for China to be well liked by people in affluent economies in North America, Europe, and Asia than it is among those in middle-income Asian, African, and Latin American economies.
In 2022, China’s trade with fellow BRICs member Brazil totaled $157 billion (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1105976/brazil-trade-value-china/). In that same year, Chinese exports (https://www.china-briefing.com/news/us-china-trade-in-goods-hits-new-record-in-2022-what-does-it-mean-for-bilateral-ties/) to the US amounted to $538 billion. US-Chinese trade is playing a critical role in maintaining China’s anemic economic growth in the context of the ongoing weakness in Chinese household consumption. China also imports massive amounts of agricultural commodities from the US—some $36 billion in 2022 (https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/record-us-fy-2022-agricultural-exports-china#:~:text=Executive%20Summary,for%20the%20second%20consecutive%20year)—as well as from Australia (https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/05/economy/australia-china-exports-record-intl-hnk/index.html), with the latter being a critical supplier of important minerals for Chinese manufacturers. Without American and Australian farm exports, China would quickly face severe food shortages that could lead to political instability and undermine Xi and Communist Party’s grip on power. Finally, in 2021 popular backlash in Europe over Chinese Government repression toward the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang helped scuttle an investment deal (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/04/eu-suspends-ratification-of-china-investment-deal-after-sanctions) between China and the European Union that would have benefited both parties. And several days ago, Italy, which had been the only developed country to join China’s 1 Belt, 1 Road scheme, announced that was withdrawing from this initiative (https://www.cfr.org/blog/why-italy-withdrawing-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative).
Can China reverse its current negative image in much of the world? I would say probably not, at least as long the people currently running the country stay in charge. Unlike his illustrious predecessor Deng Xiaoping, who shrewdly sought to lower China’s international profile, Xi has embarked on a more aggressive and expensive foreign policy. That shift, combined with the “wolf warrior” diplomacy accompanying it, has soured global public opinion about China. Until that changes, enhancing China’s worldwide image and soft power will be an uphill struggle.