Is China still popular?…This question was made manifest in data released by a US research company at the end of June. A report concluded, “In 19 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center this spring, people see the United States and President Joe Biden more favourably than China and its president, Xi Jinping.”
Yet at the same time, it noted, “But when it comes to perceptions of each country’s relative influence in the world, much larger shares in most nations see China’s influence growing than say the same of the US.”
In Australia, for example, 14 per cent of respondents had a positive view of China, versus 54 per cent who looked at the USA in a positive light. Japan was even more extreme, with just 12 per cent viewing China positively, compared to 70 per cent who thought the same of the USA. The spread of sentiment was even greater in South Korea, with 19 per cent appreciating China, but 89 per cent feeling optimistic about the USA.
A crossover occurs when it comes to Southeast Asia, however. In Singapore, for instance, 67 per cent of people viewed China positively, compared to just 51 per cent for the USA. Malaysia was similar, with just 44 per cent liking the USA and 60 per cent pro-China.
A median of 66 per cent in 19 countries surveyed said that Chinese influence on the world stage was getting stronger, while just 32 per cent said the same about the USA. Of interest, those under the age of 30 tend to have more favourable views of China than do those aged 50+.
Earlier research from the Pew Research Center showed a marked dip in popularity for China in the period 2008-20. Favourable views of China in Australia went from 52 per cent in 2008 to just 15 per cent in 2020. At the same time, the unfavourable rating went from 40 per cent to 81 per cent.
In Japan, positive views of China went from 55 per cent to a mere 9 per cent, while 66 per cent dropped to 24 per cent in South Korea. Even in the far-away UK, a negative disposition towards China went from 16 per cent to 74 per cent over a twelve-year period.
Such views are being repeated all across Asia, Europe and North America. This is quite a remarkable achievement for China to turn off so many people around the world, even whilst attempting to boost its popularity. Indeed, the Pew Research Center had to point out that “negative views have reached their highest points since the centre began polling on this topic more than a decade ago”.
China’s denial of responsibility for spreading COVID-19 was certainly one constituent in the change in sentiment, but there are a plethora of contributing factors such as China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”, nationalistic hubris, trade frictions, territorial expansionism, China’s Uighur concentration camps, and its subjugation of Hong Kong.
Xi is treated like a demigod in China and adored on news front pages nationwide, but Xi’s reputation overseas is in tatters. Pew Research Center surveys from late 2020 found that, in 14 countries, a median of 78 per cent said they had no confidence in Xi to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs, with at least seven in ten in every country saying they lacked confidence in him.
Chinese demands are becoming more strident, and this is rubbing people up the wrong way. For example, in 2020 the Chinese Embassy handed a list of 14 grievances to Australia. Beijing reduced this to four points when it gave newly installed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese a similar set of demands.
The essence of China’s four demands is for Australia to “accept Chinese dominance and accommodate its expansion, and in return, we will not threaten you”. This is nothing other than extortion. Uncowed, the Australian leader responded that Australia “doesn’t respond to demands”.
Similarly, China handed the USA a blueprint for how it sees the two should coexist in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the proposal to US counterpart Antony Blinken during a meeting in Bali on 9 July.
The four points were for the USA to correct its erroneous China policy and its words and deeds; make clear specific issues of its concerns with China; specify China-related legislation it passes, and list eight areas for two-way cooperation.
Wang reiterated, “I told the US side very solemnly that our two sides should consider discussing the establishment of rules for positive interactions in APAC and jointly uphold open regionalism. We look forward to feedback from the US side to the Chinese proposal.” He said everything hinged upon the USA’s “hegemonic mentality”. The China Daily said, in setting forth this list, that China “displayed pragmatism, vision and the utmost sincerity”. The article urged Washington to “stop putting off making tangible moves, fix the damage it has brought to the relations and respond in good faith to Beijing’s new proposals”.
This is typical fare for China’s orchestrated propaganda. Others are always to blame, China is always innocent, and therefore others must rectify their behaviour, is the recurrent mantra.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can never admit responsibility or blame. It is an unelected authoritarian party, and it must maintain an aura of perfection and omniscience. This means it wields enormous strength in presenting a unified message, even if it is parochial and erroneous.
Cai Xia, a Chinese dissident and scholar of political theory who once taught at the CCP Central Party School, commented: “The CCP utilizes everything to achieve its aims. They think that as long as the purpose is achieved, any means can be used (the ends justify the means). They will use enticing language to lure multinational companies into China. But then these companies will soon find that they have fallen into a trap: they must transfer their technologies or face shutdown.”
She also said Americans were too naive. “In Chinese culture, deception is in our blood. There is no spirit of the contract, no sense of fairness, and people often say different words to mean the same things under different circumstances. Something said today can change tomorrow … If Americans naively believe the benign words and empty propaganda slogans that the CCP propagates, then they will be deceived and cheated. This is Chinese-style cunning.”
This can be seen in news articles and official releases destined for international audiences. These routinely use different words and emphases depending on whether the audience is domestic or foreign. If the latter, the message can be toned down or subtly altered to make it more benign.
China’s Foreign Ministry, on the occasion of the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, said, “We hope Japan will earnestly learn the lessons of history, stay committed to the path of peaceful development, and earn the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community with concrete actions.”
Of course, the same could be said of China. Such comments are blindly schizophrenic, even as its own reputation plummets.
As another example of Chinese belligerence, China is asserting that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters, and therefore other countries have no right to sail warships through the strait.
Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, joint commander of the French Armed Forces in the Asia-Pacific, said Chinese claims of “sovereign rights” over the Taiwan Strait are “completely wrong”. He added that the French Navy is regularly harassed by the Chinese military.
Indeed, international maritime law confirms that only the first 12 nautical miles from the coast constitute territorial waters. Rey stated: “So the first thing is to react to these assertions … [including through] the presence of vessels and aircraft to see what is happening there and to reaffirm freedom of navigation. So when we need to go through places like the Taiwan Strait, we don’t hesitate to do so.”
The same military harassment occurs for the Philippines, with the China Coast Guard recently attempting to stop Manila from resupplying troops stationed on the beached BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
The Philippines has recently behaved like a Chinese vassal, with former president Rodrigo Duterte refusing to challenge China, and setting aside the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that sharply criticized China for its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
However, things are looking more positive with newly minted President Bongbong Marcos. His administration issued a statement on 12 July, the sixth anniversary of the arbitration award, saying the court “authoritatively ruled that the claim of historic rights to resources within the ‘nine-dash line’ had no basis in law and is without legal effect”. Manila’s statement concluded: “These findings are no longer within the reach of denial and rebuttal, and are conclusive as they are indisputable. The award is final. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories.”
It looks hopeful that the Philippines will finally stand up to bullying China, and defend its legal territorial rights.
Most Asian nations have sought to balance relations between the USA and China. Foreign Minister Wang suggested, “We should insulate this region from geopolitical calculations,” and prevent them from being “used as chess pieces in major power rivalry”. However, China cannot bring itself to admit culpability for being one of the chess players.
China’s strategic handiwork can also be seen in the Pacific Islands. Wang did a dramatic grand tour of numerous Pacific nations in late May, hoping to sign them up to a Chinese cooperation framework. Although that did not happen, China did manage to cause a chorus of alarm from regional neighbours such as Australia and New Zealand.
At this week’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva, Kiribati withdrew on the eve of the forum’s opening. This was a huge shock to the PIF, an organization that puts credence on solidarity. Beijing may have failed earlier in a multilateral effort to get the Pacific Islands on board, but it has plenty of opportunities to divide and conquer by exploiting disharmony within the PIF.
Kiribati was one of five Micronesian countries to announce last year that it would leave the PIF. There are strong suspicions that Beijing is behind Kiribati’s withdrawal, as it increasingly isolates itself from others. With US military installations nearby and rich fishing grounds, Kiribati is of strategic importance to China.
Doctor Anna Powles, a Massey University lecturer in New Zealand, commented: “There are checks and balances that exist within regionalism that are incredibly important for ensuring the stability of the wider Pacific family. Now to be outside those mechanisms it would be a benefit for a country like China.”
Beijing has already signed a cozy security cooperation deal with the Solomon Islands. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare unilaterally proceeded with a deal that gives China a major foothold in the Solomons.
Chinese influence over Sogavare is seen in revelations that the Solomon Islands is now blocking Australian aid workers while opening wide its doors to China and praising Beijing as a “worthy partner”. As one commentator put it, “The CCP is running Sogavare like a puppet on a string”.
Alarmingly, Sogavare is removing the national broadcaster as a state-owned enterprise, and will instead fully finance the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation. This is reminiscent of what China does in fully controlling media at home, with the CCP regarding the media as “the tongue and throat of the party”.
Pacific island nations are facing recession, with income down after COVID-19 decimated tourism. GDP declined by an average of 2.4 per cent in 2021, and 3.7 per cent in 2020. The International Monetary Fund lists seven low-income Pacific nations as at high risk of debt distress.
This financial stress is ripe for China to exploit. Beijing is splashing cash around, and there is a risk that countries end up indebted to this authoritarian regime. Of course, debt gives China tremendous leverage over such small states. At the end of the day, China cares more for power and control than it does for popularity.