June 12, 2008

Global Economic Gloom - China and India Notable Exceptions

Chapter 3. Views of China

As the international spotlight turns to China and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, international publics are showing signs of apprehension about the country and its growing power. Overall, favorable views of China have declined slightly over the last year, and this is especially true in Asia, as well as in Western nations, where enthusiasm for the Beijing Games is muted and concern about China’s increasing military strength is on the rise.1

For most publics included in the survey, a familiar complaint about American foreign policy – that it tends to be unilateralist – rings true for China as well. The perception that China fails to consider the interests of others when making foreign policy decisions is widespread, particularly in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and among China’s neighbors South Korea, Japan and Australia. On this and other measures, Japanese attitudes toward China are among the most negative.

In addition to anxieties about China’s role in foreign affairs, there is significant concern about China’s growing economy in some countries, especially the U.S. and Western Europe. Even more widespread, however, are worries about the safety of Chinese products. The recent scandals involving recalls of Chinese exports are well known to many, and in most of the nations surveyed, relatively few believe products made in China are as safe as those made elsewhere.

In many ways, the survey reflects China’s ascendance as a major power. In both the developing and developed world, people see China having a significant influence in their own countries. In Western Europe, majorities believe either that China has already replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or that it will at some point replace the U.S. Few Chinese think their country has already supplanted the U.S., but most think it will eventually do so.

China’s Image Declines Slightly

Majorities in seven of the survey’s 23 nations give China a favorable rating. This is the same number of countries in which majorities rate the United States positively. China’s popularity has declined somewhat since last year in nine of 21 countries where trends are available, while increasing in only two countries and remaining basically stable in 10.

American public opinion regarding China is roughly divided between those with a favorable (39%) and those with an unfavorable (42%) view. U.S. attitudes toward China have changed little since 2007, when 42% had a positive and 39% a negative opinion.

Ratings for China are decidedly negative in three of the four Western European countries included in the survey. Fewer than one-in-three respondents in Germany, France or Spain express a positive opinion. Moreover, attitudes toward China have grown more negative in all three countries since last year. This is especially true in France, where China’s favorability rating has plummeted from 47% to 28%. This year’s decline continues a slide among Western Europeans over the last few years – since 2005, China’s favorability score has dropped 30 percentage points in France, 26 points in Spain, and 20 points in Germany. And while a plurality in Great Britain continues to express a positive view, opinions of China there are down significantly from 2005, when 65% offered a positive rating.

In Asia, opinions about China vary considerably. China is overwhelmingly popular among Pakistanis – roughly three-in-four (76%) express a positive opinion, while just 8% hold a negative view. A clear majority of Indonesians (58%) also have a positive view, although China’s favorability rating has dropped seven percentage points among Indonesians over the last year. On balance, Australians take a positive view of China, while both South Koreans and Indians are divided on this question. On the other hand, the Japanese are more negative than any other public included on the survey – just 14% offer a positive assessment of China, down 15 points from an already low 29% in last year’s survey. Of course, China and Japan have a long and often difficult history with one another, but as recently as 2002, a majority of Japanese (55%) voiced a positive view of their longtime rival.

Middle Eastern views of China are mixed. In both Egypt and Lebanon, positive views outweigh negative ones, but in Jordan negative ratings are slightly more common. Similarly, opinions are mixed in Latin America, and many in the region are unable to offer either a positive or negative assessment.

Over 70% of both Nigerians and Tanzanians take a positive view of China, but public opinion is quite different in South Africa, where China’s favorability rating is just 37%.

Rating the Chinese People

Majorities in only nine of the 23 countries surveyed express a favorable view of the Chinese people. Some of the highest ratings come from neighboring countries, including Pakistan (78% favorable), Australia (73%) and Indonesia (59%). Elsewhere in Asia, views are mixed in South Korea and India, and decidedly negative in Japan, where 73% have an unfavorable opinion, by far the most negative assessment of the Chinese people in the survey.

In most countries, views of the Chinese closely resemble views of China as a nation. For instance, this is true in the three African nations included in the survey: Tanzanians and Nigerians have overwhelmingly positive views of the Chinese people, while South Africans lean toward a negative assessment, the same pattern that characterizes opinions of China itself in these countries.

In the U.S. and Western Europe, however, there is a gap between perceptions of China and perceptions of its people. This is similar to the gap that characterizes attitudes toward the U.S. and its people throughout much of the world.

In Britain, only 47% hold a positive view of China, but 65% have a favorable view of the Chinese people. An even larger gap exists in the U.S., where just 39% express a favorable opinion of China, but 64% express a positive opinion of the Chinese. Smaller, but still substantial, gaps exist in Spain, France and Germany.

Most See China as Neither Partner Nor Enemy

In most of the countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities think of China as neither a partner nor an enemy of their country. In six nations, the balance of opinion is that China is a partner, while no public included in the study characterizes China as an enemy. This stands in stark contrast to the results from this same question when it was asked about the United States – people are much more likely to label the U.S. as either a partner or an enemy.

The way in which people characterize their nation’s relationship with China varies extensively across regions. Pakistanis are especially likely to say China is a partner to their country, as are Nigerians and Tanzanians. A slim majority of South Africans also call China a partner. In neighboring Russia, about half of those surveyed (49%) say China is a partner.

Fewer than one-quarter of those in the survey’s five European Union countries – Britain, France, Germany, Poland and Spain – consider China a partner. However, Americans are the least likely to say China is a partner of their country, and fully 20% characterize it as an enemy.

But China is rated as an enemy by significant minorities in other countries as well, including South Korea (28%), Turkey (25%), Egypt (24%), Japan (23%) and Mexico (22%).

Many See China as Unilateralist

Among the publics included in this survey, there is a widely held view that China acts unilaterally in international affairs. Majorities in 14 of 23 countries say that China does not take into account the interests of countries like theirs when making foreign policy decisions.

This view is prevalent in the U.S. and among EU nations – more than seven-in-ten in France, Spain and Britain, and somewhat smaller majorities in Poland, the U.S. and Germany, think China generally ignores their interests. Majorities in the Middle East also agree with this perspective.

Opinions differ among the six Asian and Pacific countries – Indians, Pakistanis and Indonesians tend to believe China does consider the interests of countries like theirs, while South Koreans, Australians, and Japanese overwhelmingly disagree.

Elsewhere, Mexicans and Brazilians are divided on this question, while Argentines tend to think China acts unilaterally. In all three African nations, on the other hand, majorities believe China takes their interests into account.

While most of the publics in the survey believe China generally acts unilaterally, the Chinese tend to have a very different impression of their country’s approach to foreign policy. When asked whether China takes into account the interests of other countries when making foreign policy decisions, 83% of Chinese say they believe it does consider other countries a great deal or a fair amount.

Pew Global Attitudes surveys over the last several years have shown that publics throughout the world tend to believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in world affairs and fails to take into account the interests of other countries. The 2008 survey did not collect data on perceptions of American unilateralism, but a comparison of 2007 data on this question with the 2008 findings for China reveals that, in many countries, perceptions of Chinese and American foreign policy are very similar.

In 12 of the 20 countries where comparable data are available, the share of the public saying China considers the interests of countries like theirs and the share saying this about the U.S. are within five percentage points of each other.

For example, in all three Latin American nations, perceptions of Chinese and American unilateralism track one another very closely. In Mexico, there is just a one-percentage-point difference between perceptions of China and of the U.S. on this question – 48% think China takes the interests of countries like theirs into account, while 47% said this about the U.S. In Brazil and Argentina, the gap is only one point and four points respectively.

In only a few countries are there truly large differences on these two questions. In Russia and Pakistan, people are much more likely to think China considers their interests than to believe the U.S. does. Conversely, in Japan people are much more likely to think China acts unilaterally when making foreign policy decisions.

Leading Superpower

China’s emergence as a world power is clearly reflected in public opinion throughout all major regions of the world. While there is no country in which a majority believes China has already overtaken the U.S. as the world’s dominant power, in several countries a significant minority holds this view, including 22% in America’s southern neighbor, Mexico, and 18% in another rising Asian power, India.

Moreover, much larger percentages – and majorities in some countries – believe China will eventually supplant the U.S. as the world’s leading power. Most of those surveyed in Germany, Spain, France, Britain and Australia think China either has already replaced the U.S. or will do so in the future.

While only 5% of Chinese currently think they have already become the leading superpower, 53% believe they will someday assume this rank. About one-in-four (23%) feel they will never surpass the U.S.

Even in the U.S. more than one-in-three say China either has already overtaken their country (5%) or will eventually do so (31%). Still, a 54%-majority doubts China will ever unseat the U.S.

Publics in Lebanon, Egypt, and Indonesia are about as confident that the United States will retain its superpower status as are Americans themselves. The Japanese are even more confident – two-thirds say China will never replace the U.S.

China’s Influence

Another indicator of China’s growing power is the extent to which publics throughout the world see Chinese influence in their own countries. This is especially true among China’s Asian neighbors – 86% of both Japanese and South Koreans think China is having a great deal or fair amount of influence on the way things are going in their countries. And solid majorities agree with this perspective in Australia (72%), India (64%) and Indonesia (60%).

But China’s impact is not limited to Asia. Majorities in France, Germany and Britain think China is having at least a fair amount of influence in their countries. And a remarkably high 76% of Americans believe China is influencing things in the U.S.

How respondents characterize China’s influence varies considerably across countries. In the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, people are more likely to say China is having a bad effect than a good effect. In Asia, the Japanese and South Koreans overwhelmingly view China’s impact in a negative light, while Indonesians and Pakistanis see it more positively, and Australians and Indians are divided on this question.

A great deal of attention has been paid in recent years to China’s increasing economic and political engagement with Africa. In all three African publics, people are more likely to characterize China’s impact positively than negatively. By a substantial margin, Nigerians are more likely than any other public to say China is having a positive effect in their country – 60% take this view, while only 6% see it as a negative influence.

China’s and Military and Economic Power

With a few exceptions, the publics in this survey worry about China’s growing military might. No one is more concerned about this than the Japanese, 90% of whom say their neighbor’s rising military strength is a bad thing for Japan. Nearly as many South Koreans (87%) see this as a bad thing for their country. Three-in-four Australians agree, as do 62% in India, a nation which fought a brief war with China in the early 1960s.

In India’s historic rival, Pakistan, however, 61% see China’s increasing military power as a good thing, the highest percentage found in the survey. Nigeria (60%) and Tanzania (51%) are the only other countries in which a majority characterizes China’s military strength as a positive factor.

Negative views of China’s military prowess are common in the U.S. and Europe – more than seven-in-ten in the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Spain, Russia and Poland consider it a bad thing for their own countries. Moreover, concerns about China’s military have increased in each of these nations since last year. The trend has been especially dramatic in the U.S. and Spain – in both countries, the percentage of the public saying “bad thing” has risen by 14 points.

Generally, publics across the world find China’s growing economic power less troubling than its increasing military strength. Turkey is a notable exception – Turks are about as likely to say China’s economic power is a bad thing (56%) as to characterize its military power as bad (52%).

Nonetheless, the survey reveals significant concerns about China’s economy. Majorities in France, Germany, and the U.S. say China’s economic power is a bad thing for their countries, as do most South Koreans. Interestingly, however, despite the history of conflict between the two nations and the negative views many Japanese currently hold about China, a majority of those surveyed in Japan describe China’s economic development as a good thing for their country.

Majorities also believe China’s economy is having a positive effect on their countries in a diverse set of nations, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Jordan, Australia, and Brazil, as well as all three African countries.

Views on the Olympics

The survey finds that international opinion largely approves of holding the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in China. Majorities in 14 of 23 countries say the decision to hold the Games there was a good one.

However, European publics are notably less enthusiastic. In France, home to large demonstrations when the Olympic torch recently passed through the country, a clear 55%-majority calls the decision to hold the Games in China a mistake. On balance, the British and Spanish approve of holding the event in China, while Germans, Americans and Poles are more divided on this question.

Unlike in other Asian nations, opposition to the Beijing Games runs high in Japan – 55% of Japanese disapprove of the decision to hold the Olympics there, while just 39% approve.

Apprehension About Chinese Products

In 2007, high profile recalls of toys and other Chinese-made products generated considerable media attention in the United States and other countries, and as the results of this poll demonstrate, in many countries there is a high level of awareness about these controversies.

With near unanimity (96%), the Japanese say they are aware of the recalls of food and goods manufactured in China over the last year. More than eight-in-ten in both South Korea and the U.S. have also heard a lot or a little about this issue.

Awareness is also widespread in Germany (72% a lot or a little), Australia (66%), and Indonesia (66%). And majorities in Nigeria, Britain, Spain, France, Russia and India are familiar with this issue.

Few, however, in Latin America know about the recalls – just 27% of Brazilians, 26% of Mexicans and 14% in Argentina have heard something about this. Awareness is also low in Pakistan (17%).

The survey finds considerable skepticism about the quality of Chinese products, and this is true even in many countries where awareness of recalls of Chinese projects is low. In 19 of 24 countries, at least half of those surveyed say Chinese products are generally less safe than those produced elsewhere.

There is a consensus throughout much of the West that Chinese products are not as safe, although here again Britain is something of an outlier – just 50% of the British think Chinese projects are inferior to others in terms of safety. Nearly three-in-four Americans equate “Made in China” with safety risks.

The South Koreans and Japanese are the least likely to say China’s products are as safe. In both countries roughly nine-in-ten say they are generally less safe than those produced elsewhere.

Opinions are quite different, however, in China itself. Overwhelmingly, the Chinese public has confidence in its products – 65% say they are as safe as those from other countries, while just 18% say they are less safe.

  1. The survey was conducted from March 17-April 21, 2008, following the onset of civil unrest on Tibet, which began on March 10, and prior to the May 12 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.