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.
International Views 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.”
Views of China Across the Asia-Pacific
A 2017 Pew Research Center study that surveyed 38 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 high levels of favorability toward China (70 percent). Conversely, Japan held one of the least-positive views of China, with only 13 percent of the public viewing China favorably.
Recent history helps explain this variance. Since 2002, Russia has consistently held a positive view of China – averaging 64 percent between 2002 and 2017. Likewise, China has historically held a positive view of Russia. 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 2016, with Russia importing $38 billion in Chinese goods, almost doubled that of Germany ($19.4 billion) – Russia’s second largest source of imports. The two countries also have mutually beneficial energy security needs. In May 2014, China and Russia signed a $400 billion deal to provide natural gas from Siberia to China. 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 (2011–2017).
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 and half. More than half of Japanese felt favorably toward China in 2002, but this number dropped to 5 percent in 2013 and only improved slightly to 13 percent in 2017. This trend was confirmed by Genron NPO, which observed Japanese favorability toward China dropping since 2007. Genron data shows that 64.6 percent of Japanese listed the ongoing territorial dispute as key source of their unfavorable impression of China.
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 across the region was 76 percent in 2017, compared to just 34 percent in China. Pew data shows that while the Philippines and Vietnam viewed Japan with 82 and 76 percent favorability, China and South Korea held exceptionally low favorability of Japan at 14 and 31 percent,1 respectively. 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 case of the United States, China’s economic strength has been cited as a source of concern. It was reported in 2017 that 47 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of China, down from 55 percent in 2014. Pew suggests that this softened stance may be a result of easing concerns among Americans over China’s economic impact on the U.S. economy. A separate poll by Gallup showed a similar trend. The share of Americans that regard China’s economic power as a critical threat to U.S. vital interests dropped from 52 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2015.
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?
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, there is considerable apprehension toward Mainland China. According to a 2016 Taiwan Indicators Survey Research poll, 51.7 percent of respondents said that President should not “explicitly acknowledge the 1992 Consensus.” A November 2016 poll indicated that 58.3 percent of people in Taiwan distrust Chinese President Xi Jinping, up from 34.4 percent in 2013. Another poll revealed that nearly half of the population of Taiwan believe that Mainland China becoming a global power would be “somewhat bad” or “very bad” for Taiwan. Similar skepticism exists in Hong Kong, where in 2017 just over 61 percent of the population had confidence in China’s future, down from over 80 percent in 2010. Over the same period, trust in Beijing’s central government among Hong Kongers dropped from 41.8 percent to 34.4 percent.
Countries in Asia are also concerned about Chinese military power. Pew found that the majority of respondents in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India consider the growing military might of China a “bad thing” for their country. The 5th Japan-South Korea Joint Public Opinion Poll found that in 2017 more than half of South Korean respondents viewed China as a significant military threat, a nearly 15 percent increase from the previous year. Similar opinions are observed among Japanese, with 46.3 percent of the public viewing China as a military threat.
Many of those surveyed believed that China’s growing military strength will deepen existing regional disputes, as well as increase competition between China and the United States. Americans seem to share this view. In 2016, a Gallup poll reported that 87 percent of Americans agreed that China’s military power was a threat to vital U.S. interests. A similar theme was touched on by a 2017 report from the Asian Research Network. When asked whether the United States wields the most influence in Asia, only 11 percent of Australians, 14 percent of Japanese, and 31 percent of South Koreans agreed. In comparison, 72 percent of Australians, 42 percent of Japanese, and 59 percent of South Koreans agreed that China was the most influential actor in Asia.
Views of China From Around the World
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.
According to Pew, views of China across Africa are generally positive – with the 6 countries surveyed averaging 58 percent favorability in 2017. This positivity corresponds to a larger trend over the last decade that has witnessed an average favorability of 67 percent among the African states that were polled. Of the African countries surveyed in 2017, Nigeria (72 percent), Senegal (64 percent), and Tanzania (63 percent) not only held the most favorable views of China in Africa, but also some of the most positive views of China globally.
Chinese investments across the continent might in part account for this generally positive opinion. Over the last decade, China has poured more money into Africa than any other country. According to official government figures China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) flow in Africa rose from 317 million in 2004 to 2.97 billion in 2015 – but the actual tally may very well surpass official figures.
When asked by the 2016 Afrobarometer whether Chinese influence was positive or negative, an overwhelmingly majority of Africans pegged China’s growing influence in their country as a positive. This influence commonly takes the form of investment projects, and for some countries there appears to be a loose correlation between Chinese investment and perceptions of China. For instance, Nigeria has received more inbound investment from China than any other African country since 2005 ($44 billion), and it also holds the highest views of China among African states polled by Pew. The impact of Chinese investment has also materialized politically. In January, 2017, Beijing announced that it would invest $40 billion in Nigerian infrastructure projects – on the same day officials in Abuja reaffirmed the country’s recognition of the “One-China” policy.
In some cases, however, Chinese investment has not corresponded with positive perceptions. Both Egypt and Algeria have been the target of considerable investment from Beijing, yet both countries have lower than 40 percent favorability toward China. Worrying signs for China have emerged elsewhere. Pew observed that in 2017, Ghana and Kenya had a significantly lower opinion of China than they did two years prior. In 2015, Ghana held the highest views of China in the world at 80 percent favorability, but this number dropped precipitously to just 49 percent in 2017. Despite flagship investments in Kenya, such as the newly opened 300-mile railway stretching from Nairobi to Mombasa, views in the East African state dropped by 16 percentage points from 2015 to 2017. The causes behind these dips are complex, but some have cited the flooding of low-quality Chinese goods on domestic markets and the lack of employment opportunities created by Chinese investment for local populations as marks against China’s overall image.
Both Pew and BBC polling data show perception towards China across Europe to be generally negative. However, Pew data does show that views have warmed slightly as of late, with an average favorability in 2017 of 42 percent across 10 countries – a 3 percent increase from the previous year. This slight uptick in the favorability toward China was accompanied by a sharp decline in perceptions of America. America’s favorability dropped in 8 out of the 11 European countries polled, which may reflect worries across the continent of declining U.S. leadership on key transnational issues, such as its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
More than 8 in 10 Europeans say China doesn’t protect the personal freedoms of its own people.
– Bruce Stokes
In the 2017 survey, Greece held the highest opinion of China in the region (50 percent), which could be a consequence of growing economic ties between the two countries. As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested heavily in Greece. The push to extend its trade linkages into Europe via Greece was exemplified in 2016 when China’s state-owned shipping company, COSCO Group, bought a majority share of Piraeus Port Authority. Additionally, China has invested heavily in Greece’s energy sector. In June 2017, the State Grid Corporation of China purchased 24 percent of Greece’s power grid operator ADMIE. These continuing investment may be earning China political gains – in 2017 Greece vetoed a unified statement that was to be issued by the E.U. to condemn China’s human right abuses.
According to 2017 BBC polling data, Spain (15 percent), Germany (20 percent), and France (35 percent) have the lowest opinions of China in Europe. Pew observed similarly low favorability toward China from those three countries.
|Favorability of China Among Key E.U. States in 2017 (%)|
|Pew Research Center, BBC World Service|
The reasons for this negativity are broad, but in the case of Germany, economics may play a role. For instance, the takeover of German’s robotics maker KUKA in 2016 by China’s Midea Group raised concerns that the purchase would give China access to key technologies which could make Chinese firms more competitive with their competitors in Europe. The acquisition also drew attention to China’s unwillingness to open its own domestic market to foreign investment. A year later, Germany became the first E.U. member to tighten its control over foreign takeovers. It also helped spearhead a joint proposal with France and Italy to European Commission in September 2017 that could curb China’s ability to purchase European companies in key industries.
Latin America has benefited from surging Chinese investment, which has likely contributed to reasonably high favorability across the region. The seven Latin American countries surveyed by the Pew reported an average favorability of 49 percent in 2017. Brazil, Chile, Peru and Venezuela all reported positive perceptions of China, which somewhat unsurprisingly reflects China’s investments in the region. Brazil was not only the top destination for China’s FDI between 2005 and 2016, it also held the second highest of view of China in Latin America.
|Views of China Among Key Latin American States|
|Country||Chinese FDI Stock in Country ($bn)||Favorable View of China in 2015 (%)||Favorable View of China in 2017 (%)|
|Pew Research Center, China Global Investment Tracker|
Although a significant portion of these investments focus on resource extraction, China has started to expand into other sectors. For instance, the binational Brazil-China Fund, which was established in 2015, is slated to invest $20 billion in infrastructure projects. Prospective projects include the much anticipated “grain rail” that will connect Brazilian inland grain production facilities to port cities that have shipping ties to China.
The 2017 Pew data also shows that for the first time views of China across Latin America are more favorable than those of the United States. This shift may as much be a result of China’s push to increase its influence in the region as it is the absence of American leadership. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his threats to re-evaluate the North American Free Trade Agreement have raised questions about America’s ongoing role in the region. Conversely, China has cultivated an image of itself as an active partner in development efforts. Not only has China pledged to increase its regional investments to $250 billion by 2025, China’s development banks currently provide more financing to Latin American countries than all Western banks combined. Argentina, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, have also all been granted prospective membership to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with Brazil holding perspective founding member status.
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.
– Bruce Stokes
How Chinese View Their Own Country
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. Over the past 10 years, Pew surveys have shown that on average 95 percent of Chinese hold positive views of China.
Views of domestic issues show that most Chinese are optimistic about their country’s power and influence. According to Pew, 67 percent of the Chinese public in 2015 believed that China would eventually surpass the United States as the world’s leading superpower. The same poll showed that only 16 percent believed that China would never replace the United States as a superpower.
Chinese people are similarly optimistic regarding the nature of China’s influence abroad. Of the Chinese respondents to the 2011 Asian Barometer survey, 97 percent believed that China had a positive impact in the region.2 According to a 2017 BBC poll, this conviction extends globally, with 88 percent of Chinese believing that China is a positive influence in the world. Just 10 percent of those surveyed believed China’s growing global influence to be negative.
Chinese confidence is reflected in their approval of the central government, although 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 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.