On Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping will preside over an elaborate celebration of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese mainland, a return that he has said “ended past humiliation and marked a major step forward toward the complete reunification of China.” Perhaps in an attempt to preserve that narrative, the government has warned activists not to protest and blocked several media outlets from attending. Meanwhile, on another side of the world, during this week’s G-7 and NATO summits, Western leaders are casting China as a rising challenge that must be countered.
These are just the latest examples of China’s efforts to shape and spread a positive narrative about its place in the world — and other countries’ attempts to push back. And according to a new Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday, it’s clear that — in several parts of the world — China is losing the battle of narratives. The data from more than 20,000 respondents in 19 advanced economies reveals highly critical views of China on a range of issues, as well as a shared view that China’s influence is growing.
As tensions rise between the West and China, the survey results offer insights into the depth of the division and what is driving negative views of China.
A dark view of China and President Xi
Pew has conducted this survey since 2002. This latest iteration finds that perceptions of China are at historically negative levels. Critical views of China spiked in 2020, after the outbreak of the covid pandemic, and have remained at similar levels since. Of the 19 countries surveyed, the middle-of-the-pack view was 68 percent unfavorable toward China, with Japan holding the most negative level at 87 percent. The U.S. was close behind at 82 percent. European countries and South Korea were also found to have widely negative views, while Singapore and Malaysia — countries closer to China’s orbit — had a warmer outlook.
For most countries, this level of disapproval has risen well above pre-pandemic levels. Year to year, the most pronounced increases in negative views came in the U.K., U.S. and Greece. And for 10 of the countries surveyed, including the U.S., unfavorability was at an all-time high.
Better news for China came in questions about bilateral relations. Across the board, people held more positive views about bilateral relations between China and their own countries, suggesting that these relationships are relatively well managed and offering some reasons for optimism.
The survey also probed global views of Xi’s leadership as he prepares to begin a third term. Here the survey revealed a divide in opinion. When asked about their “confidence in Xi to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” Western nations as well as Japan and South Korea had highly negative to mostly negative views, while Malaysia and Singapore maintained a much friendlier position. At the high end, 85 percent of people in Sweden had “no or not much confidence at all” in Xi, whereas 69 percent of Singaporeans expressed some to a lot of confidence.
The dim view of Xi in Western nations may owe in part to his cozy relationship with Russia. Xi met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics just prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a meeting that established a “no limits” partnership between the two countries, and China has continued to toe the Kremlin line on the war. China’s relationship with Russia was highlighted as the top concern in a separate survey Pew published in April looking in greater depth at U.S. opinions toward China.
What’s driving such critical views?
More than any other issue, China’s human rights record stood out as the highest concern for those surveyed — and these concerns were closely associated with overall negative views of China.
Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew who co-authored the report, told Grid that economic issues had previously been more salient for respondents, but human rights have emerged as a sharper issue in recent years. This coincides with China’s increasingly harsh repression of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and the crackdown that followed the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.
In the U.S., bipartisan attention to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang — including a sweeping new law passed last week — has raised the profile of these issues in the American public, Silver said. Notably, in the U.S. and other Western nations, respondents said that addressing human rights issues should be prioritized above building economic relations with China. This suggests that there is public support for measures like the new Xinjiang law, which may cause economic disruption between the U.S. and China.
Fears about China’s military ambitions were also reflected in the survey. Nearly three-quarters of the countries said it was a serious issue, with the sharpest concern coming from some of China’s neighbors in the Pacific — Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Beijing has been dismissive of past Pew surveys. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson said in response to a recent U.S.-specific Pew survey that “unscrupulous and despicable” attacks on China by U.S. politicians, media and think tanks were to blame for negative views of China. “These anti-China forces, driven by ideological bias and selfish political interests, flagrantly provoked confrontation and division, disseminated political viruses, and poisoned the public opinion atmosphere in both countries.”
Not surprisingly, the Pew results are unlikely to find a wider audience in China. A separate survey conducted by the Carter Center in September found that the vast majority of Chinese people believe their country is seen in a positive light abroad, which researchers attributed to the success of China’s censorship. “The public opinion bubble within China that insulates Chinese people from information about China’s image abroad could be potentially dangerous, as China’s risky and provocative diplomatic and military endeavors overseas may face relatively little domestic constraint,” wrote Jian Xu, an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College.
Economically, China’s declining image has also come with consequences. Its human rights violations in Xinjiang led to the collapse of a major trade deal with the EU, and the recent Xinjiang import bans in the U.S. have already hit the region’s significant cotton industry.
However, across much of the Global South, China has worked to burnish its image through its increasing media influence. It’s difficult to say whether those efforts are paying off. Most of the countries eligible for this latest Pew survey were advanced economies, largely in Europe, because the pandemic has disrupted research in poorer countries where online surveys aren’t feasible. The 2019 Pew survey, the last to capture a greater set of low-income countries, showed generally more positive views of China in those nations. But Silver said those results might not be repeated today, in particular, because China’s response to the pandemic may have changed countries’ views.
Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote that when it comes to the West, China seems set on a more aggressive approach to foreign policy despite its sinking image. The Pew survey suggests there are costs to that approach.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Yale-NUS College. This version has been corrected.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.