Perceptions play an indelible role in international politics. Politicians must perceive and anticipate both threats and opportunities. Public opinion can sway the tide of politics. As countries grow increasingly interconnected on the global stage, it is necessary to consider how countries like China are perceived and the implications on China’s global influence. Public-opinion polling provides a window into understanding popular attitudes and sentiments. Opinion polls translate popular sentiments into quantifiable data. In this way, it is possible to trace the lasting impact of international politics on perceptions of China.
This question uses opinion-polling data to examine how China is viewed regionally and globally, as well as how Chinese people view their own country. While each country’s viewpoint of China may be different, a comparative survey of polling data highlights significant trends in global attitudes toward China. Understanding these trends is of critical importance as China grows in international significance. According to Bruce Stokes, director of Global Economic Attitudes at Pew Research Center, “If you look forward and say who is going to be the world’s superpower, then a lot of the world thinks it’s going to be China at some point in the future.”
How does the favorability of China compare with other countries in Asia?
A 2015 Pew Research Center study that surveyed over 40 countries asked participants if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of China. Views of China within Asia varied considerably. On one end of the spectrum, regional powers such as Russia held impressively high levels of favorability toward China (79 percent). Conversely, Japan held the least-positive views of China, with only 9 percent of the public viewing China favorably.
Recent history helps explain this variance. Since 2002, Russia has consistently held a positive view of China (71 percent in 2002 and 79 percent in 2015). Likewise, China has held a generally positive view of Russia. Fifty-one percent of Chinese held a positive view of Russia in 2015 (down slightly from 54 percent in 2007), which was the third-highest favorability toward Russia of all 39 countries surveyed by Pew. The economic and political dimensions of Sino-Russian relations may play a role in these favorability ratings. China was Russia’s largest trade partner in 2014, with exports valued at 37.5 billion. However, this figure dropped significantly to $28.6 billion in 2015 due to falling oil prices and economic sanctions on Russian firms. The two countries also have mutually beneficial energy security needs. In May 2014, China and Russia signed a $400 billion deal that will see Russia provide natural gas from Siberia to Chinese markets. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, both countries have demonstrated shared political interests on contentious security issues, such as Iraq (2002), Iran (2006), Sudan (2012), Zimbabwe (2008), Libya (2011), and Syria (2011–2014).
Japan maintains negative views of China despite a high level of economic interconnectedness. Friction over trade, such as China’s restrictions on the export of rare earth materials to Japan in 2012, territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and lingering historical animosity are key areas that have contributed to Japan’s negative views toward China. Pew data reveals a sharp decline in Japanese views toward China over the last decade. Accordingly, more than half of Japanese felt favorably toward China in 2002. This number dropped to 34 percent in 2011 and to 9 percent in 2015 and improved slightly to 11 percent in 2016. This trend was confirmed by Genron NPO, which observed Japanese favorability toward China dropping since 2007. Genron data shows that 46.4 percent of Japanese listed the dispute as a source of their unfavorable impressions of China.
A Conversation with Bruce Stokes
0:06 - Are positive views of China tied primarily to its economic influence? If so, is an economic slowdown likely to negatively influence views of China?
1:44 - Do we know why some countries view China more positively than others?
4:02 - How much do specific political events or controversies influence global views of China?
5:52 - What are some of the key areas where domestic views within China vary significantly from international views towards China?
8:21 - How much do generational gaps account for differences in views? Do young people around the world generally view China more or less favorably than older generations?
This extreme variability in favorability is not unique to China. While Japan is overall the most respected country in the region, favorability toward Japan is similarly diverse. Japan’s median favorability is 71 percent in the region, compared to just 57 percent in China. Pew data shows that while the Philippines and Vietnam view Japan with 82 and 81 percent favorability, China and South Korea hold exceptionally low favorability of Japan at 12 and 25 percent. According to a Pew survey report that analyzed regional views of Japan, these lows are likely the result of the memories associated with the actions of Imperial Japan during the Pacific War.
Perceptions of Chinese influence play a significant role in how China is viewed in the region. In the case of the United States and South Korea, China’s economic strength has been cited as a source of concern. It is reported that 55 percent of Americans in 2016 and only 37 percent of South Koreans in 2015 held an unfavorable view of China. Both countries, however, poll extremely high in their skepticism of the Chinese economy. Separate 2014 polls show that 88 percent of Americans and 71.9 percent of Koreans viewed the Chinese economy as a threat. Fears over the Chinese economy are down from 91 percent in 2013 for Americans, and up for South Koreans from 40.8 percent in 2006. While Americans hold a high level of skepticism toward the Chinese economy, 2015 Gallup data shows that 40 percent of Americans view China’s economy as a critical threat, which is down from 52 percent in 2014. American skepticism toward China may in part be related to a perceived loss of regional influence among its allies. When asked whether the United States wields the most influence in Asia, a 2016 report from the Asian Research Network suggests that only 22 percent of Australians and 48 percent of Japanese agree, in comparison to 60 percent of South Koreans.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, there is significant apprehension toward Mainland China. According to a 2016 Taiwan Indicators Survey Research poll, 51.7 percent of respondents said that President Tsai Ing-wen should not comply with Beijing’s demand to explicitly acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. In Taiwan, a November 2015 poll indicated that 62.9 percent of Taiwanese distrust Chinese President Xi Jinping, up from 53.8 percent in May of that year. Another poll revealed that nearly half of Taiwanese believe that Mainland China is becoming a world power, which would be bad for the people of Taiwan. In Hong Kong, on average 55.6 percent of people had confidence in China’s future in 2016, down from 88 percent in 2008. In the same time frame, Hong Kong’s trust in Beijing’s central government decreased from 54.9 percent to 32.7 percent.
Skepticism toward China can influence domestic politics in countries around the world. In the case of the United States, two-thirds of Americans are seriously concerned over the large amount of U.S. debt held by China (ChinaPower has explored this concern in depth), while 60 percent worry about job loss to China. Recognizing this popular sentiment, American politicians frequently employ anti-China rhetoric during campaign cycles. In South Korea, politicians must balance increasing public distrust of China with the practical need of securing China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea.
Countries in Asia are also concerned about Chinese military power. A 2015 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that a majority of respondents in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India are concerned about territorial disputes with China. In 2014, a survey of South Koreans found that 66.4 percent viewed China as a significant military threat. Many of those surveyed believed that a rising Chinese military would deepen existing regional disputes, as well as increase undesirable competition between China and the United States. Similarly in 2015, 82 percent of Americans responded that China’s military power is a threat to vital U.S. interests. A 2015 poll in Japan revealed that China had surpassed North Korea as the top security concern for the Japanese public.
What does polling reveal about how Chinese power is perceived outside of Asia?
China’s rise has elicited a range of reactions from around the world. Some countries remain skeptical of China’s growing international influence. Other countries see China as a source of economic opportunity. This question surveys China’s favorability in three key regions: Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
Favorability toward China in Central and Southern Africa is generally very positive, with 7 of 11 countries polled in 2015 having 70 percent or more favorability toward China. By comparison, South Africa was the most highly favored globally among African countries, but only averaged 39 percent favorability. China’s considerable investments in the region may be paying dividends for China’s international image. China has been a top investor in the region in the last decade. Chinese outbound foreign direct investment (ODI) stock in Africa has increased from 317 million in 2004 to 3.2 billion in 2014, with a notable surge in 2008 when the figure jumped to 5.49 billion. Furthermore, at the December 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $60 billion in further investment and joint projects. While Chinese investment may have some influence on its favorability ranking in the region, most countries surveyed by Pew indicated that the continent’s peoples dislike the spread of Chinese ideas and culture to Africa.
Despite China’s rising involvement in Africa, the United States maintains greater favorability in the region. As a point of comparison, Chinese aid and investment in the region pales to American contributions. Between 2003 and 2013, U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Africa increased from $19.8 billion to $61.4 billion. While Chinese development aid may contribute to positive favorability among African countries, there is some indication that the United States is apprehensive about China’s growing regional influence. During a 2012 visit to Africa, then-U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton remarked that the United States is committed to “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it” from Africa—which some interpreted as a veiled attack on China.
Although polling data indicates that the United States is viewed more positively than China in most African countries, favorability trends are shifting to China’s favor. Of the 11 African countries surveyed by Gallup in 2014, only 3 preferred Chinese rather than American leadership. However, opinions of the United States dipped in all 11 countries polled from 2009 to 2014, while opinions of China either increased or remained relatively constant. Notwithstanding this trend, it is unclear to what degree China’s investment in the region has improved favorability. China has invested billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Kenya, but a 2015 survey by Ipsos found that Kenyans see China as the largest threat to their own economic and political development.
Favorability toward China is lower in Europe than it is in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The United Kingdom held the highest opinion of China of any country in the EU. Even then, only 47 percent of respondents viewed China favorably. The UK seeks to be China’s economic “partner of choice in the West,” and David Cameron stated that Xi Jinping’s four-day visit in October 2015 was the opening act in a “golden era” for UK-China relations. The rhetoric surrounding the improved UK-China relationship is reminiscent of the language that surrounds the special diplomatic and economic relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. Nevertheless, Cameron insists that the new era of UK-China relations will not affect this transatlantic partnership. It remains unseen what impact Cameron’s policies will have on China’s favorability in the UK, but it is worth noting that the British are still much more favorable toward the United States (65 percent) than China.
More than 8 in 10 Europeans say China doesn’t protect the personal freedoms of its own people.
According to BBC polling data, Germany, Spain, and France have the lowest opinions of China among European countries, with the three nations viewing China with 10 percent, 24 percent, and 26 percent favorability, respectively. BBC found in 2014 that Germany—which polled as the most favored country in Europe—held a 10-year-low opinion of China. Pew similarly observed significant decreases in China favorability ratings in the three European countries from 2005 to 2016. The reasons for this increase in negativity toward China are broad, but in the case of Germany economics may play a role. Increasing economic ties between China and Germany have strengthened bilateral relations between the two countries. A 2012 report from the European Council on Foreign Relations even noted the emergence of a burgeoning “special relationship” between China and Germany. Nonetheless, a trade dispute over Chinese solar panels suspected of being heavily subsidized and then “dumped” on the European market prompted German manufacturers to press the European commission to investigate the matter. Given that China is now Germany’s fourth-largest trading partner, with China being the destination of 6.9 percent of German exports, commercial disputes likely contribute to the German public’s apprehension toward China, notwithstanding its government’s policies. A 2014 study by Chinese company Huawei had similarly pessimistic conclusions about German views of China. The survey found that 59 percent of Germans view China’s political power as a threat.
Latin America has recently benefited from a surge in Chinese investment, which has likely contributed to higher favorability ratings for China in the region. Chinese ODI stock in Central and South America increased from $332 million in 2003 and since 2010, Chinese FDI hovers between US $9 to $10 billion per year, accounting for 6 percent of the region’s inbound FDI. As of 2015, a Chinese billionaire is leading the financing behind a $50 billion canal project in Nicaragua, Chinese companies are purchasing Brazilian soybean fields, and they plan to invest in a transcontinental railway that will transport all these raw materials to Peru’s Pacific Coast and eventually to China. In addition, China has pledged to invest $250 billion in the region over the next decade. Unsurprisingly, regional favorability toward China is quite high (though not as high as in Africa), with Venezuela, Chile, Nicaragua, Peru, and El Salvador holding positive views. China’s “no strings attached” method to investments and loans, in which there are no overtly stated political aims, has contributed to high favorability in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Much like in Africa, however, increasing Chinese investment has not translated into higher favorability than the United States. Matt Ferchen, resident scholar at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, suggests that “[t]he imbalanced South American commodity-for-manufactures relationship with China has long caused some in the region to worry about a repeat of historical raw material ‘dependency’ relations.” Furthermore, cultural unfamiliarity may negatively bias Latin American opinions of China. With decades of economic relations between Latin America and the United States, favorability from Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and Mexico, which are four of the five largest economies in Latin America, is very high. The 2014 AmericasBarometer regional survey revealed that 57 percent of Latin American and Caribbean citizens hold positive views of U.S. influence. The same survey showed that 57 percent of individuals believe that the U.S. holds the most regional influence, followed by China at 16.5 percent.
If you look forward and say who is going to be the world’s superpower, then a lot of the world thinks it’s going to be China at some point in the future.
How does China perceive its own status in the world?
As China’s rise continues to help shape the international order, it is important to assess not only how other countries view China, but also how the Chinese people see their own country. Polling data shows that the Chinese public holds exceptionally positive views toward their country. In 2005, 88 percent of Chinese surveyed by Pew had a positive view of China. Eleven years later, this figure increased to 95 percent.
Surveys of Chinese domestic views show that most Chinese are optimistic about their country’s power and influence. According to Pew, more than 50 percent of the Chinese public believes that China will eventually surpass the United States as the world’s leading superpower and only 16 percent believe that China will never replace the United States as a superpower. The 2011 Asian Barometer Survey indicates that 44 percent of Chinese believe that China has the most influence in Asia, compared to 25 percent that believe the United States holds the most influence in the region. When asked which country will have the most influence in 10 years, 59 percent of Chinese believe it will be China, while just 11 percent responded that it will be the United States.
Chinese people are similarly optimistic regarding the nature of China’s influence abroad. Of Chinese respondents to the Asian Barometer survey, 97 percent believed that China has a positive impact in the region. According to a 2014 BBC poll, this conviction extends globally, with 85 percent of Chinese believing that China is a positive influence in the world. Just 7 percent of the surveyed Chinese believed China’s influence to be negative.
Chinese confidence is reflected in their approval of the central government, though it is difficult to judge the reliability of this data, especially since many Chinese people may be fearful of expressing critical views of their leaders and government. In the 2014 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 92 percent of Chinese expressed confidence in President Xi Jinping. This overwhelming approval rating was mirrored by a 2014 survey conducted at Harvard University, which found that 94.7 percent of Chinese expressed confidence in Xi’s capability of handling domestic affairs and 93.9 percent were confident in Xi’s handling of international affairs. Nevertheless, there is some indication that China’s economic slowdown may dampen Chinese enthusiasm. A 2015 Gallup poll found a 9 percent year-on-year drop (85 percent to 76 percent) in the Chinese belief that their standard of living was improving.