Amid a heavy handed crackdown on dissent, public opinion polls indicate an improvement in China’s international image.

The Chinese government is cracking down hard on dissidents, lawyers who defend them, social critics like Ai Weiwei, journalists, bloggers and worshipers in unregistered house churches. Scores have been detained, arrested, imprisoned or “disappeared” since mid-February. The present crackdown is a continuation of the harsh response to the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo in October last year, when police in Beijing and other cities rounded up anyone who might attend the December 10 ceremony in Oslo.

There are several reasons why China’s communist leaders have ordered this latest suppression of dissent and protest. A leadership transition will begin in 18 months when hardliner Xi Jinping, a “princeling” known for his intolerance of political reform and defiance of international criticism, succeeds Hu Jintao. At such times, it does one’s career no good to appear soft on dissent. There is also concern over stability. By one estimate, there were at least 180,000 mass incidents in the country last year. At the recently concluded session of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a lowering of annual growth targets to 7 percent for the five-year period beginning 2011, from a previous target of 8 percent. This level of growth is just fast enough to absorb those entering the workforce as job seekers. Unemployment among youth, rising inflation, widespread corruption, a possible property-bubble burst, and growing income disparities all worry China’s leadership.

Outside of China’s borders, there is another reason why the Chinese government is proceeding with the crackdown: it isn’t paying a price in the court of international opinion. In fact, recent polls suggest that public opinion towards China in most countries, including the United States, is improving. This is in sharp contrast to what happened in the aftermath of the Tiananmen killings in 1989, when, according to Gallup, China’s public approval in the United States fell by half. The decline prompted calls for economic sanctions and, ultimately, concessions from the Chinese government that included the release of many political prisoners.

The latest Gallup poll of American attitudes towards a long list of countries was taken in February and released in March. Of those surveyed, 47 percent had a positive impression of China and 49 percent had a negative impression, a statistical dead heat given the poll’s 3 percent margin of error. This marked improvement over last year’s results—53 percent of Americans having a negative view and 42 percent having a positive view—is one of China’s best showings since Tiananmen.

Even more striking are the results of a recently released BBC poll of international attitudes towards China taken last autumn and early winter. When asked whether China’s influence on the world is positive or negative, 44 percent of respondents in 20 countries replied “positive,” while 39 percent replied “negative.” Last year, responses in the same countries showed a near even split: 40 percent positive and 39 percent negative.

While attitudes towards China remain negative in most western countries, the BBC poll indicates that, on the whole, views have become more positive over the last year. Gains in positive responses were recorded in the United States, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia. In the Philippines, Indonesia, and Turkey, improvements were in the double digits. The surge in Turkish opinion is interesting because Turkish people are closely related, both culturally and linguistically, to China’s Uyghurs, an ethnic group concentrated in Xinjiang that has suffered from particularly harsh treatment since the Urumqi riots in July 2009.

Back inside China, things aren’t so positive. One of the biggest changes in opinion towards China’s world influence was recorded among the country’s own citizens. Although a strong majority believes that China has a positive influence in the world, the percentage of those who think that China has a negative influence rose to 17 percent in 2011 from 8 percent in 2010.

Such incongruous data may indicate that people outside of China have too much on their plates to pay attention to what’s going on within. The Pew Center found that a mere 3 percent of Americans followed President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January, despite 11 percent of media covering the event in the days surrounding his visit. This degree of disconnect between coverage and interest is rare. Lack of interest underpins lack of outcry and fosters silence among political leaders, who prefer doing business with the world’s fastest growing economy.

It may well be the case that China’s leadership would continue to implement harsh human rights policies even if its international image suffered. But the notion that views of China are improving suggests to Zhongnanhai that people outside of China don’t care how the country treats its citizens, and, even more chillingly, applaud the authoritarian practices that accompany the nation’s rise.