SAN FRANCISCO (October 1, 2019) — On September 30, 2019, the Pew Research Center released its latest Global Attitudes survey. Nearly 35,000 people in 32 countries were polled on their opinions of China from May 13 to August 29, 2019. The results indicate that China’s “soft power” push to improve the country’s international image has failed in North America, Western Europe, and Asia. Opinions on China in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Africa have remained for the most part positive, though there has been significant slippage in several countries, notably Kenya and South Africa.
Of the 26 countries surveyed by Pew in both 2018 and 2019, 17 show drops in favorability versus nine which show improvements. Compared with 2018, China’s favorability rating fell by double digits in eight countries. The decline in opinions towards China was most pronounced in Indonesia, Canada, and Sweden (down 17 percentage points) and in the United States and Australia (down 12 percentage points). In each of these countries, concerns over China’s human rights have been much in evidence over the last 12 months.
In Indonesia, protests against China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang have taken place, and there is growing dissatisfaction over China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea. (In Tunisia, another Muslim country surveyed by Pew, opinion towards China dropped seven points year on year).
In Canada, where a Nanos survey released in August showed that 90 percent of Canadians held a negative or somewhat negative opinion of China, there is widespread anger over the treatment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Both men were detained and subsequently arrested for spying in apparent retaliation for the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Ms. Meng has a team of lawyers and is out on bail enjoying life in Vancouver, where she owns two mansions, while the Canadians are being held in harsh conditions in state security detention centers, largely incommunicado. They are allowed one 30-minute consular visit a month. Opinions have also been affected by death sentences for two Canadians convicted of drug trafficking
In Sweden, where China’s favorable rating dropped from 42 percent in 2018 to 25 percent in 2019, anger has been stoked by the treatment of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai. In Australia there is alarm over the treatment of Australian citizen and writer Yang Hengjun, recently arrested for spying. A Lowy poll released in June indicated that China, Australia’s largest trading partner, dropped nine degrees on the so-called “feelings thermometer” which measures public warmth towards other countries. This was the worst result for China in 15 years of polling.
China’s leadership is known to be concerned by the rapid deterioration of China’s image in the United States. A Gallup poll taken in February showed that 57 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of China, a drop of 12 points since the 2018 poll. While there are many reasons for the fall in China’s popularity – militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea, cyber espionage, and trade practices, to name a few – human rights abuses are one of them. There has been a steady drum beat of negative media over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, policies on religious freedom, and encroachments on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
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