Global opinion of China has nosedived under Xi Jinping’s rule, Pew survey shows

COVID ruined China’s image, but its human rights record, military power, and economic policies are also concerns.
By Eugene Whong for RFA
2022.09.28
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
Global opinion of China has nosedived under Xi Jinping’s rule, Pew survey shows People stand in front of images of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on Sept. 4, 2022.
AFP

China’s global image took a “precipitously more negative” turn after President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, with Beijing taking the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic while also facing criticism for its human rights record, military posture and economic policies, data from a Washington-based research group showed.    

Ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in October, the Pew Research Center on Wednesday published a report drawing on 20 years of surveys from more than 60 countries.

“The people are basically good, but leader Xi is too controlling and should not be in power this long,” a U.S. woman was quoted as saying in the essay. “They need to let Hong Kong be an independent state as they promised and stop persecuting the Uyghurs.”

A U.S. man acknowledged that China was on the rise but said trouble would soon follow.

“A rising power that will become problematic when it cannot maintain growth. Xi’s style of authoritarianism is deeply worrying,” he said.

Not all responses focused on specific issues.

“Communist pigs. Not referring to ordinary people, they are the same as you and I,” an Australian woman said. “But their government is nasty including president Xi Jinping.” 

China’s perceived mishandling of the pandemic affected global opinion, but negative feelings toward China were already on the rise prior to 2020. 

Though there was slight variation from country to country, most countries followed the same trend as the U.S., where positive feelings toward China started to turn after Xi’s tenure began and worsened sharply around the time the pandemic started.

U.S friction

When Xi took office during President Obama’s second term roughly four in 10 in the U.S. had a “favorable” view toward China, while between 30-40 percent of respondents held an “unfavorable” view of the country.

But as friction in the bilateral relationship grew due to Chinese land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea and the U.S.’s negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the percentage of Americans who looked at China unfavorably rose to more than half.

Opinion of China showed slight improvement during the first half of the Trump presidency but quickly turned sour as the trade war began in 2018. Among Republicans alone, negative views of China increased by 20 percent between 2018 and 2019.

By March 2020, when it had become clear that COVID had spread beyond China’s borders, more than three-quarters of the U.S. population viewed China unfavorably. China’s reputation in the U.S. continued to decline, with about 82 percent today viewing Beijing negatively, as concerns grow about human rights, its partnership with Russia despite Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and other issues.

The opinion of China in other countries, though showing similar trends as that in the U.S., varied according to the bilateral relationship.

In South Korea, negative feelings increased greatly following economic pressure from Beijing in 2017 in response to Seoul installing U.S. missile interceptor technology known as THAAD. Opinion worsened during the pandemic to around 80 percent unfavorable in 2022.

People in Japan held the most negative views of China. As bilateral tensions began to rise over territorial claims in the East China Sea in 2013, 93 percent of Japanese poll respondents said they viewed China unfavorably. In 2022, that number improved slightly to 87 percent, according to Pew.

In Australia, favorable views outnumbered unfavorable well into Xi’s presidency and did not reverse trend until the years between 2017 and 2019 as concerns grew that China was attempting to influence the country’s domestic politics. In 2022, 86 percent of Australians view China unfavorably, an 24 percentage point increase since 2019.

Though the Pew report noted that most of the ill feelings for China were directed at the government or Xi himself, it said that discrimination and harrasment of people of Chinese descent has increased in the U.S. and in other countries since the start of the pandemic.

Additionally, while respondents were for the most part careful to clarify that their negative feelings were limited to the Chinese government or its growing economic power, those who expressed negative views of the country were about 20 percentage points more likely to support restricting Chinese students studying in the U.S. and Australia. 

Growing influence

China was perceived to have growing international influence among 66 percent of people in 19 countries, while 12 percent believed it was getting weaker. At least half of respondents in 24 of the 40 countries surveyed in 2015 said China was on pace to replace the U.S. as the world’s strongest superpower, or had already done so.

In 2018, half or more of respondents in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and the U.S. said that China was a major threat. Outside of those countries, half or more considered it at least a minor threat.

In 2022, 67 percent of U.S. respondents considered China a major threat, up 19 percentage points from the previous year, and 48 percent said limiting China’s power and influence should be a top foreign policy goal, a 16 percentage point increase over 2021.

Concerns about the Chinese military were also widespread, with 72 percent in 19 countries saying Beijing’s military power was a “serious problem” in 2022. Japan and Australia were the two countries most concerned by the military.

In many of the surveyed countries, the sense that China does not respect human rights was at or near historic highs.

“Although the sense that China did not respect the personal freedoms of its people was already high in most advanced economies in 2018, it nonetheless rose significantly again in 2021, following revelations about detention camps for Uyghurs, the U.S. declaring the situation in Xinjiang a genocide and calls to boycott the 2022 Olympics over human rights abuses, among other issues,” the Pew report said.

Many in the U.S. and Australia expressed concern for mistreatment of the Chinese people at the hands of their government.

“I am very concerned that the people do not have any freedom in the police state in which they live,” an Australian man said. “I have grave concerns about the Uyghurs and the way they are being rounded up and put into the so-called re-education centers. It seems as if there is another holocaust happening to these people.”

A woman in the U.S. was concerned about personal freedoms. 

“China has a huge human rights problem,” she said, “Their citizens are spied on and arrested for speaking out.”

A majority of respondents in both countries in 2022 said promoting human rights in China was important, even if it harmed economic relations. Respondents in Israel, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, however, said strengthening economic relations was more important.

Economy

Economic competition from China is seen as a serious problem in advanced countries in 2022, especially in South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Australia, but Chinese economic growth was not universally viewed as bad, with about half in the same four countries reacting to it positively. 

The report noted that while the survey was underway, Japanese exports to China fell. South Korea recorded a months-long trade deficit with China after the survey was completed. 

Australia has had a trade surplus with China since before the pandemic, but Beijing enacted a series of sanctions on Canberra in 2020 as relations deteriorated over Australian support for an international inquiry into how China handled the coronavirus.

In the U.S., there was concern about the trade deficit and loss of jobs to China in 2021.

“Massive economic power that cares little about their workers, but have brainwashed them with propaganda into thinking that they matter,” a U.S. woman said.“The workers are like robots. Everything I buy says made in China.”

An Australian woman, however, marveled at the rapid pace of economic progress. 

“China is the only major country in the world that has lifted the majority of its population out of poverty and progressed from a third-world status to a first-world economic status in just under 40 years!” she said.

Opinions about president Xi himself have followed the same trend. 

“Views of the Chinese president turned even more negative between 2019 and 2020. By 2022, majorities in all but two advanced economies surveyed had little to no confidence in his approach to world affairs.” 

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.