Report

China’s Global Image Plummets After Coronavirus

A new survey shows that international opinion of China has dropped as governments continue to apply diplomatic pressure.

A man wears a protective mask in Wuhan, China.
A man wears a protective mask in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 10. Stringer/Getty Images

Public attitudes toward China have turned sharply sour over the past year, according to a new report published on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, amid widespread criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite China’s shift to an aggressive posture through its new “Wolf Warrior”, style of diplomacy, over two-thirds of people in 14 major countries said they had no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing with regards to world affairs. More than three out of five on average said China had done a bad job in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. The most negative views of China’s coronavirus performance came from the three nations in close proximity that were surveyed, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. 

China’s new approach may not be winning friends abroad, but it may not be meant to.

“The Wolf Warrior diplomacy doesn’t work well in the Western context, but it’s often oriented toward domestic audiences within China because it makes China seem stronger and withstanding Western pressures,” said Maria Repnikova, a professor at Georgia State University who focuses on China. 

While those surveyed took a dim view of China’s handling of the pandemic, the United States fared even worse. Some 84 percent of respondents said America had mishandled the pandemic. And however much those surveyed may not trust Xi, they have even less faith in the U.S. President Donald Trump. A Pew survey released last month found that across 13 wealthy countries, Trump was less trusted than Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with 83 percent of respondents saying they had “no confidence” in the U.S. president’s handling of global affairs. 

When it comes to the economy, China is on track to see an estimated 1 percent growth this year, while the rest of the world grapples with a spiraling economic crisis. That economic heft and resilience is reflected in the survey: In most of the European countries surveyed, at least half the respondents saw China as the world’s leading economic power, while only a third held this view about the United States. 

Pew’s findings come just after the House Intelligence Committee warned last week that the United States was at risk of being outpaced by China on the global stage and left unable to protect the nation’s health and security unless the intelligence community is overhauled to meet the multifaceted global threat posed by Beijing. 

Public opinion in a number of countries seemed to reflect a growing hawkishness among national governments. Australia, which saw the biggest increase in negative views toward China, has traditionally seen China as a valuable market for its natural resources. However, Australia has recently sought to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and increase defense spending in the Indo-Pacific region—indicative of Australia’s growing perception that China is a threat to the country’s democracy and sovereignty. 

In Europe, China was flying high just a few years ago. Today, it is battling a growing perception that it is a destabilizing actor. The United Kingdom, which once defined itself as “China’s best partner in the West” saw a jump in unfavorable opinion of China from 55 percent to 74 percent. The Netherlands, once very open to business with China, has recently taken a more defensive posture to protect its technology industry. 

In the latest sign of international diplomatic pushback, Britain and Germany secured support Tuesday from 37 other countries for a statement before the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee denouncing China’s treatment of Hong Kongers, Tibetans, and Uighurs. A similar resolution last year secured only 23 votes.

The shift reflected growing resentment against China, which has previously threatened to punish countries that backed the statement with a cutoff of trade. Last year, China threatened to block an effort by Austria to secure property in Beijing for its embassy. 

Beijing also warned Lebanon that it would veto a resolution extending the mandate of a critical U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, according to diplomatic sources. Austria supported this year’s resolution, but Lebanon did not.

The sponsors of the resolution also persuaded key European countries, including Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, to back the resolution for the first time. The United States supported the resolution both years.

“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong,” Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said in the statement on behalf of the 39 countries. “We call on China to respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.” 

China portrayed the vote as an effort by the Trump administration to distract from its own failings at home to address racial discrimination, police brutality, and a failed response to the coronavirus, which has resulted in the death of more than 210,000 Americans, while infecting the president and leading lawmakers, and sending top generals into protective quarantine.

“Blaming others won’t solve your problems, nor hide your failures. I would like to say to the U.S. that blaming China cannot cover up your poor human rights records,” China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. “Before accusing others, you’d better take a good look in the mirror at yourself. In fact: It is the U.S. that should protect the basic rights of its people.”

For its part, China secured support from 45 other countries for a statement defending its own policies in Xinjiang, ostensibly meant to root out terrorism, which have been criticized by rights groups. The joint statement was read out by Cuba. “We note with appreciation that China has undertaken a series of measures in response to threats of terrorism and extremism,” the statement read. “People of all ethnic groups enjoy their happy lives in a peaceful and stable environment.”

China’s global image is bad and getting worse among rich countries, like those in the survey. But less-developed countries, such as Kenya, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Tunisia, tend to have more positive views of China, as a Pew survey last year showed. One explanation: the more perceived corruption there is in any given country, according to Transparency Internationals’ Corruption Perceptions Index, the more positive attitudes are toward China. 

And China can’t necessarily buy love. Last year’s Pew report found little correlation between Chinese investment in a country and the country’s overall views of China. The study found while some countries that receive high levels of investment, such as Nigeria, have highly favorable views, other countries like Indonesia remain evenly split in their views of China despite receiving, in Indonesia’s case, nearly $50 billion in capital investment.

That has China rethinking how to boost its global image, since its huge economy, trade might, and massive investments overseas have failed to pay political dividends.

“The Chinese government has invested heavily in promoting its image beyond its economic expansion,” Repnikova said. In China, “there’s a narrative that we don’t just want to be an economic powerhouse, we also want to be liked, accepted, and recognized.”

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Darcy Palder is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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