A World That Likes China, but Not Xi Jinping

Globally, China is more popular than some observers might expect. Its paramount leader lags behind.

China Popularity Cover
China Popularity Cover

Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down hours ago on Sept. 22 for the start of a visit to the United States, and is set to attend a state dinner at the White House on Sept. 25. As Xi enjoys a sumptuous menu and a 21-gun salute, it’s unlikely anyone will remind him that his approval rating in the United States is a paltry 28 percent, and his country's approval rating only 38 percent.

Xi now finds himself on a continent that generally views him and his country with skepticism -- but the picture is very different elsewhere. Data collected by the Washington, DC-based think tank Pew Research Center over 2014 and 2015 indicates that worldwide citizen sentiment toward China is generally positive, while attitudes toward Xi himself are far more mixed. Some continents are overwhelmingly pro-China, others mixed; but confidence in Xi "to do the right thing in world affairs" is markedly lower. The map below, based on Pew findings, shows two data sets. The default setting illustrates what surveyed citizens in countries around the world think of China; the second, what respondents think of Xi. Green signifies approval or confidence, red disapproval or lack of confidence. Click on any colored country for data:

As the map demonstrates, China is generally more liked than disliked among those countries where Pew conducted its surveys. That’s particularly true in Africa and South America, which also happen to be the continents where the impact of Chinese investment is being most keenly felt. In South America, for example, China has pledged $10 billion to build a rail line between Brazil and Peru ports, and will reportedly establish a joint $50 billion fund between a Chinese state-owned bank and a Brazil state-owned bank. Meanwhile, on a 2014 visit to Africa, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated his country's intention to invest $100 billion there by 2020; China has already imported tens of billions of dollars' worth of raw materials from the continent. Many nations in both Africa and South America run trade deficits with China, or have seen their trade surpluses reduced in recent months as China’s waning demand for commodities ripples across the globe. But trade volumes are high, signifying high economic interdependence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down hours ago on Sept. 22 for the start of a visit to the United States, and is set to attend a state dinner at the White House on Sept. 25. As Xi enjoys a sumptuous menu and a 21-gun salute, it’s unlikely anyone will remind him that his approval rating in the United States is a paltry 28 percent, and his country’s approval rating only 38 percent.

Xi now finds himself on a continent that generally views him and his country with skepticism — but the picture is very different elsewhere. Data collected by the Washington, DC-based think tank Pew Research Center over 2014 and 2015 indicates that worldwide citizen sentiment toward China is generally positive, while attitudes toward Xi himself are far more mixed. Some continents are overwhelmingly pro-China, others mixed; but confidence in Xi “to do the right thing in world affairs” is markedly lower. The map below, based on Pew findings, shows two data sets. The default setting illustrates what surveyed citizens in countries around the world think of China; the second, what respondents think of Xi. Green signifies approval or confidence, red disapproval or lack of confidence. Click on any colored country for data:

As the map demonstrates, China is generally more liked than disliked among those countries where Pew conducted its surveys. That’s particularly true in Africa and South America, which also happen to be the continents where the impact of Chinese investment is being most keenly felt. In South America, for example, China has pledged $10 billion to build a rail line between Brazil and Peru ports, and will reportedly establish a joint $50 billion fund between a Chinese state-owned bank and a Brazil state-owned bank. Meanwhile, on a 2014 visit to Africa, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated his country’s intention to invest $100 billion there by 2020; China has already imported tens of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials from the continent. Many nations in both Africa and South America run trade deficits with China, or have seen their trade surpluses reduced in recent months as China’s waning demand for commodities ripples across the globe. But trade volumes are high, signifying high economic interdependence.

Pakistani and Russian people are two of China’s biggest supporters, with 82 percent and 79 percent, respectively, expressing a favorable view. In both cases, much of the relationship centers on trade and investment. As part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link western China to central Asia and then to Europe, Chinese authorities announced a $46 billion infrastructure and energy deal in April 2015, called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China’s also inked an ambitious $400 billion gas deal with Russia, and although it’s unclear whether that deal (or other splashy announced partnerships with Russia) will actually come to fruition, the country’s President Vladimir Putin remains close to Chinese leaders, and appeared standing alongside Xi at the rostrum observing China’s World War II commemorative parade on Sept. 3.

Sentiment among Europeans, and China’s neighbors, are far more ambivalent. In particular, Japan views China with overwhelming unfavorability. Tensions between the two nations have arguably been high for centuries, and particularly since Japan invaded China and established a puppet state in Manchukuo, China’s northeast, in 1932. China suffered massive civilian and military casualties at Japan’s hands during World War II, and feels Japan never properly apologized. Japanese policymakers have warned of a rising Chinese military, and on Sept. 18 the Japanese diet passed a controversial security bill that shed certain post-war constitutional limits on its military by permitting the country to defend allies even when Japan is not under attack.

Notably, a country’s grassroots affection for China does not guarantee its people trust Xi to “do the right thing” in world affairs. Perhaps a generalized affection for China’s people simply does not translate into specific support for their leader, who has rapidly consolidated power and projected a more strident international image than his predecessors. The divide is particularly stark in South America, where China is highly popular, while Xi is not. Katie Simmons, Associate Director of Research at Pew, told Foreign Policy that a key reason for South America’s divergent data is “because many people [there] are unfamiliar” with Xi; a median of 36 percent of South American respondents said they do not know who Xi is. As he continues to ride herd in China over the coming decade, that number may fall.

Photo credit: C.K. Hickey for Foreign Policy

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

  Twitter: @seekayhickey

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.