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 the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it is necessary to consider how China is perceived and the implications therein on China’s global influence.
International Views of China
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.
Views of China Across the Asia-Pacific
A 2018 Pew Research Center study that surveyed 26 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 (65 percent). Conversely, Japan held one of the least-positive views of China, with only 17 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 2018. Likewise, China has historically maintained 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 2017, with Russia importing $43.8 billion in Chinese goods, almost doubled that of Germany ($27.2 billion) – Russia’s second largest source of imports. Sino-Russian trade is expected to surpass $200 billion by 2020.
The two countries also have mutually beneficial energy and security needs. In May 2014, China and Russia signed a $400 billion deal to provide natural gas from Siberia to China. In 2016, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia and is now China’s top crude oil supplier. 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. In 2002, more than fifty percent of Japanese felt favorably toward China, but by 2013, this number dropped to 5 percent. Despite several recent high-level dialogues between Chinese and Japanese political leaders, Japan’s view of China only warmed to 17 percent in 2018. This trend was confirmed by Genron NPO, which observed that Japanese favorability toward China bottomed out in 2014 at 6.8 percent, before improving marginally to 13.1 percent in 2018.
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 US, China’s economic strength has been cited as a source of concern, especially as trade frictions between the two countries have intensified in recent years. In 2018, only 38 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, down from 44 percent in 2017. Additionally, 58 percent of those surveyed by Pew believed that China’s economic power is a greater threat than its military strength, up from 52 percent in the previous year. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans regard China’s economic power as a critical threat to US vital interests.
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, there is considerable apprehension toward Mainland China. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Cross-Strait Policy Association, nearly 80 percent of respondents in Taiwan believe that China is “unfriendly toward Taiwan.” A different survey found that for the first time in recent years that more people in Taiwan see China in a favorable (48.8 percent) than unfavorable (43.9 percent) light.
Skepticism toward China is growing in Hong Kong, where trust in Beijing’s central government among Hong Kongers dropped from 41.8 percent in 2010 to 33.9 percent in 2018. Over the same period, the percent of respondents that had confidence in China’s future declined from over 80 percent to just 61 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 6th Japan-South Korea Joint Public Opinion Poll found that in 2018, nearly half of South Korean respondents viewed China as a significant military threat. Similar opinions are observed among Japanese, with 45.7 percent of the public viewing China as a military threat.
However, countries in Asia are not the only ones concerned with China’s growing military strength. 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, while others 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 4 countries surveyed averaging 62 percent favorability in 2018. This positivity corresponds to a larger trend over the last decade that has witnessed an average favorability of 66 percent among the African states that were polled. Of the African countries surveyed in 2018, Tunisia (70 percent), Kenya (67 percent), and Nigeria (61 percent) held not only the most favorable views of China in Africa, but 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 4.1 billion in 2017 – 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. Tunisia, for instance, has seen its economic activity with China grow in recent years. The trade volume between the two countries increased to $1.5 billion in 2017, with China’s imports from Tunisia increasing by 42 percent. Tunisia also joined the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in Tunisia include the development of Tunisia’s southern port of Zarzis, a new 140 km railway linking Zarzis and Gabes, as well as a new car plant.
Nigeria has also enjoyed significant Chinese investment. Since 2005, Nigeria has received more inbound investment from China ($50 billion) than any other African country. The impact of Chinese investment has also materialized politically in Nigeria. In January 2017, Beijing announced it would invest $40 billion in Nigerian infrastructure projects – 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 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 3 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. Pew data shows that views have slightly worsened as of late, with an average favorability of 43 percent across 11 countries — a 1 percent declined from 2017. This slight decrease in the favorability toward China was accompanied by a sharp decline in perceptions of America. Between 2016 and 2017, 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 2018 survey, the UK held the highest opinion of China in the region (49 percent), which could be a consequence of growing economic ties between the two countries. Chinese investment into the UK more than doubled from $9.2 billion in 2016 to $20.8 billion in 2017. UK and China have further discussed the possibility of negotiating a trade deal should UK leave the European Union.
China has also invested heavily in Greece, which held the third highest opinion of China (43 percent) in 2018. In June 2017, the State Grid Corporation of China purchased 24 percent of Greece’s power grid operator ADMIE. The continuing inflow of Chinese capital 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 (%)|
|Country||Pew (2018)||BBC (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.
While China’s growing FDI into Latin America may have improved its perception in the past, these investments may no longer appear to be yielding dividends. The three Latin American countries surveyed by Pew in 2018 — Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina — all reported negative views of China. Although Brazil has been the top regional destination for China’s FDI since 2005, only 49 percent of the Brazilian respondents held a positive opinion of China, which marked the most positive views among the countries surveyed.
|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 2018 (%)|
|Pew Research Center, China Global Investment Tracker|
In addition to resource extraction, which has attracted a significant portion of Chinese investment over the last decade, Beijing has started to explore other sectors in the region. 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. There are signs, however, that Brazil and other countries in the region are growing suspicious of China’s investment. In 2018, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro claimed that “China isn’t buying in Brazil. It’s buying Brazil.”
With the exception of Brazil, the 2018 Pew data reveals that views of China across Latin America are more favorable than those of the US. 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 tried to cultivate 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.