Surveys Show Xi’s Hardline Foreign Policy Increasingly Unpopular Among Western and Developed Countries 

A series of recent surveys shows how Chinese diplomacy in the era of Xi Jinping has soured attitudes toward China in many developed countries. At the same time, Chinese officials are doubling down on their foreign policy approach while attempting to revise the global security order to entrench the CCP’s hold on power. At the Pew Research Center, Laura Silver, Christine Huang, and Laura Clancy published a report titled “How Global Public Opinion Has Shifted in the Xi Era,” documenting “precipitously more negative” perspectives on Xi and China’s global influence:

The sense that China’s power and influence on the world stage is growing is both widespread and long-held. As of this year, a median of 66% across 19 countries say that China’s influence in the world has recently been getting stronger, including seven-in-ten or more in Australia, Italy, Israel, Greece and the Netherlands. Few – a median of 12% – say China’s influence has gotten weaker. In 2018, similarly large shares said that China was playing a more important role in the world than it had 10 years prior. And the share describing China’s influence as growing was many more than said the same of Russia, India, the U.S. and Germany, among others.  

[…] Alongside its growing influence is a sense that China is a growing threat. Roughly half or more in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and the U.S. said China’s power and influence was a major threat to their country in 2018. But even outside these particular countries, around half or more in every country but Tunisia said China’s power and influence posed either a major or minor threat.

[…] Views of the Chinese president turned even more negative between 2019 and 2020. By 2022, majorities in all but two advanced economies surveyed had little to no confidence in his approach to world affairs. Around four-in-ten or more in most places surveyed even say they have no confidence at all in Xi, including more than half of those in Australia, France and Sweden. [Source]

Among other patterns, the Pew survey revealed the gap between the Chinese people and the Chinese government in the eyes of the world. When respondents were asked what comes to mind when thinking about China, just six percent in Australia and three percent in the U.S. brought up people, with a large number of respondents instead referencing the Chinese government or economy. However, distaste for the government, which sharply increased at the start of the pandemic, correlated with harmful effects on people. According to the report, discrimination and harassment targeting people of Chinese descent has increased in several countries since the start of the pandemic, and those who expressed negative views about China were about 20 percent more likely to support restricting Chinese students studying in the U.S. and Australia.

Some scholars and analysts noted that the Pew survey is an incomplete picture of global public opinion on China, since it focuses only on Western countries and omits those in Africa and the Global South, which tend to have closer ties to China:

The German Marshall Fund also recently released a report on transatlantic views of China, which showed how many Western countries have struggled to agree on proper labels for their relationships with China, and favored a tougher approach to China despite potential repercussions

The complexity of the relationship with China for countries on both sides of the Atlantic is reflected in public opinion. Except in the United States, almost a quarter of respondents in the countries surveyed say that they do not know whether China is a partner, a competitor, or a rival to their country. This is particularly pronounced in Sweden (43%), Lithuania (36%), Poland (34%), and the Netherlands (31%). In nine countries, a plurality of respondents describe China primarily as a competitor. This perception is stronger in Germany (43%), France (39%), Spain (37%), Italy, and the United States (both 34%). In the United States, the share of respondents seeing China as a competitor (34%) is only slightly higher than that of those seeing it as a rival (32%). This is also the case to a lesser extent in Canada (28% competitor, 24% rival). 

[…] Respondents overall favor their country—with partners or on its own—taking a tougher approach toward China, but opinions diverge significantly between countries and across policy areas. Except in Türkiye and Lithuania, a clear majority of respondents support a tougher approach with China on human rights, either unilaterally or multilaterally. The respondents most in favor of getting tough are the French (66%), the Canadians and Dutch (both 62%), the Swedes (61%), the Portuguese and British (both 60%), and the Spaniards (59%). The policy area in which respondents across countries are most in favor of cooperation with China is new technologies. More than half of Turkish (58%) and Lithuanian (51%) respondents share this view, and the appetite for cooperation is also relatively high in Romania (48%) and Italy (42%). 

[…] A majority of respondents in all countries, except Lithuania and Türkiye, support a tougher approach to China, unilaterally or with partners […] Except in Romania and Türkiye, around half or more of those respondents favoring getting tough in any policy area also say they are willing to accept the domestic economic price of tougher policies. Six out of ten or more respondents in Spain (64%), Sweden (63%), Canada (61%), the Netherlands (61%), and France (60%) maintain their support for a tougher approach toward China even if it leads to higher costs at home. Slightly smaller shares of respondents, but still majorities, in the United Kingdom (57%) and Germany (54%) would also do so. [Source]

Other surveys in South Korea showed similarly hardening views towards China. A report by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies published in June showed that China’s favorability (on a scale from zero to 10) dropped from 3.25 in December 2020 to 2.71 in 2022, and that Xi’s favorability dropped from 4.47 in mid-2016 to 1.99 in 2022. Citing a January 2022 joint survey from The JoongAng Daily–Seoul National University Asia Center, a recent Wilson Center report noted that 68 percent of South Korean respondents believed that China might rule Asia if the U.S. cannot enhance its competitiveness vis-à-vis China. 

Meanwhile, Chinese officials signaled there would be no let-up in China’s controversial approach to foreign policy under Xi Jinping’s expected third term. This was the message of Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, considered to be among the contenders to replace Wang Yi as foreign minister after the 20th Party Congress, at a press conference last week. Cyril Ip from the South China Morning Post described Ma’s insistence that there would be “no retreat” from China’s hardline foreign policy:

“Chinese foreign policies will continue to cut their way through thistles and thorns and march forward with bravery and courage, and continue to serve as a loyal guardian of the interests of the country and the people,” he said.

[…] Ma was responding to a question on whether China’s diplomatic corps would stick to the “struggling spirit” celebrated by Xi in the next five years, and if China was concerned that these assertive acts would further sour ties with other countries.

[…] China’s diplomats would “proactively respond to battles” over sovereignty and national security, he added.

[…] “We have a clear-cut stand on critical issues, and we did not yield one inch.” [Source]

Hammering home this “struggling spirit,” China has demanded the floor plans of all properties rented by foreign missions in Hong Kong, The Financial Times revealed on Monday. According to one former diplomat, “Beijing clearly wants diplomats to feel uneasy,” and former U.S. consul-general in Hong Kong Kurt Tong observed, “Now, the mindset seems to be that some foreign missions are not welcome.” Contradicting the slew of negative global public opinion surveys, as China Media Project recently noted, Chinese state media defiantly portrays Xi’s foreign policy as a success in the eyes of the world:

But under the CCP, great ideas must also be made with great hype. And that hype was on display last Friday as “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” was given top billing in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, in a lengthy article right under the masthead. It was a rare center-stage performance for a phrase that has languished in China’s official discourse throughout 2022.

[…] The article rattled off related foreign policy terms, like “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色大国外交), “harmony” (和衷共济), and “co-existence” (和合共生).  

According to the soaring tribute, the world has marveled at the CCP’s great “strategic wisdom” (战略智慧) in transforming global risks into global opportunities. The world has wondered about the genius of China’s “Belt and Road” (一带一路), for example, asking how China has managed to appeal to so many partners. “It is the spirit of mutual respect,” it concludes. [Source]


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