Distrust of China jumps to new highs in Democratic nations

By Chris Buckley

Xi Jinping celebrates China’s battle against the coronavirus as a success. But in the United States and other wealthy democracies, the pandemic has driven negative views of China to new heights, a survey published Tuesday showed.

The illness, deaths and disruption caused by the coronavirus in those countries have intensified already strong public distrust of China, where the virus emerged late last year, the results from the Pew Research Center’s survey indicated.

“Unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year,” said the survey on views of China taken this year in 14 countries including Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Germany, Italy and other European nations. “Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China.”

The results illustrate how much negative opinions of China have taken hold around the world in recent years. To China’s leaders, such wary attitudes could present obstacles for the Communist Party’s ambitions of expanding Beijing’s influence. The tide of public distrust could make cooperation harder even on issues where national interests align.

“Public opinion is a powerful constraint,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, where she studies public opinion and foreign policy. “We can see in both Australia and the United States, for example, souring public opinion has served as a powerful driver for governments to be particularly vocal” about China.

The U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was in Tokyo on Tuesday for meetings with his counterparts from Japan, Australia and India — all nations that have had icy relations with China. Pompeo is often condemned by Chinese officials as an ideological warrior bent on subduing Beijing.

In many Western countries, the coronavirus crisis appears to have deepened public unease about China and Xi, China’s proudly authoritarian leader. Across the 14 countries surveyed, an average of 61% of respondents said China had done a bad job of responding to the outbreak.

In the United States, negative views about China increased by 13 percentage points compared to a similar survey last year. Close to three-quarters of 1,003 American respondents surveyed in June and July said they now had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of China.

Distrust of Xi’s international intentions reached new highs in every country surveyed, except for Japan and Spain. In the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and several Western European nations, roughly half of the respondents said they had “no confidence at all” in Xi.

“I think this sentiment is likely to persist because of longer-term trends in China toward growing repression,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University who studies Chinese foreign policy. “As long as its order of priorities remains in place, it will be difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to really turn around the trends in public opinion overseas.”

The rise in disapproving opinions of China was starkest in Australia, which has been mired in diplomatic flare-ups with Beijing in recent months.

Australia has protested the detention in China of Cheng Lei, an Australian news anchor working for Chinese state-run television, and Yang Hengjun, an Australian businessman and writer born in China who is accused of espionage, charges that his supporters say are baseless.

The number of Australian respondents with negative views of China grew by 24 percentage points compared to a year ago, so that 81% said they saw China unfavorably. That was a drastic turn from 2017, when 64% of Australian respondents said they had a favorable view of China.

“Until two years ago, the Australian public very much saw China as an economic opportunity,” said Kassam, the Australian researcher. China’s response to the outbreak has only deepened skepticism in Australia, she said.

At home, the Communist Party has tried to turn the coronavirus crisis into a political asset by assiduously censoring criticism of its early missteps in the outbreak and highlighting its later success in sharply reducing infections.

But abroad, the Chinese government’s sometimes-triumphant rhetoric and claims of selfless altruism during the crisis have grated in societies struggling to cope with outbreaks or lockdowns. European governments were irritated when China pressed European officials to praise China for medical supplies that it had sent, when Beijing had been muted about the help it provided in the first months of the pandemic. The combative language used by Chinese officials in international disputes has also irked many in Australia, Canada and other countries.

“Many Chinese people seem to have forgotten the first few scary weeks that we experienced, but other countries have not forgotten,” Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said by telephone. “It would be better if China had been more low-key and humble.”

The Chinese government has pushed back against the negative sentiment, asserting that it has been unfairly maligned by Western news outlets and politicians who want to escape responsibility for mishandling the crisis.

(Chinese leaders may feel some consolation that many respondents in the Pew survey took an even dimmer view of how the United States has handled the pandemic. An average of 84% of the people surveyed across the 14 countries said the United States had done a bad job with the coronavirus.

“In the end, this is more damaging for America than for China,” said Shen, the scholar in Shanghai. “China cannot be used to explain away the 210,000 American people who have died from this.”

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