November 18, 2020

China’s Deteriorating Image

Germans, by their own admission, don’t know that much about China, but their skepticism is high and rising. Beijing has failed to significantly profit from the alienation of the German population from Trump-led America.

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A graph showing the German percetion of China and other Asian coutries/entities
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For 20 years or so, academics, journalists, and politicians have discussed China’s rise, but until very recently, the country’s trajectory has not been a major subject of the general public’s discussion in Germany.

In November 2019, China became the subject of a prime-time political talk show, when presenter Anne Will hosted a controversial discussion about whether Germany should trust China and include Chinese tech-giant Huawei in the rollout of the new generation mobile technology infrastructure, 5G. Weeks earlier, Germany’s bestselling tabloid paper Bild had invited Hong Kong’s protest leader, Joshua Wong, to an event where he met Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The handshake between the two angered Beijing greatly.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan, however, and spread around the world, the German China debate has become more multifaceted, ranging from questions over responsibility for the pandemic to fears about medical supply chains and economic overdependency. How has all this public attention affected the perception of China in Germany?

Bad Score

To understand how these developments have impacted European public opinion, the Palacký University of Olomouc in the Czech Republic and its partners across Europe as well as NMS Market Research conducted a representative survey in 13 European countries in September and October 2020. (The German findings of the study, financed by the European Regional Development Fund project “Sinophone Borderlands” and overseen by the author, included representative online polling of 1,501 Germans aged between 18 and 70, with a fault tolerance of 1.5 percent.)

The survey found that the general assessment of China in Germany is negative. On a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being the most negative), China receives an average of only 35.44. This puts the People’s Republic not only far behind some of Germany’s closest European allies, but also Asian democracies. Even Russia’s general image is slightly better than China’s. The other great power, the United States, also scores badly, but remains ahead of China with 39.23. Interestingly, Hong Kong, which has seen mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019, also has a considerably better image than China as a whole (see graphic above).

This skepticism is shared by the supporters of all the country’s political parties. Particularly remarkable is the perception of voters of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s governing center-right CDU, whose leader, Markus Söder, could become the next German chancellor. The result is surprising since the CSU itself is rather China-friendly. Söder opposed the exclusion of Huawei from the 5G rollout. A former CSU federal minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, is the head of a newly-founded association, China Bridge, which says it seeks to facilitate mutual understanding between China and Germany. Günther Beckstein, who served as prime minister of Bavaria until 2008, heads the board of one of China’s state-run Confucius Institutes (in Nurnberg). The survey shows, however, that the CSU leadership’s Chinese ties are not met with much sympathy among its voters.

China Cannot Profit

Furthermore, compared with other European countries, the German population is rather more critical of China. Only the French and the Swedish populations hold slightly more negative views, according to the survey. The poll also finds that public perception of China has deteriorated significantly in Germany in the last three years. Only respondents from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and France self-report even more strongly that their views of China have worsened.

This rather negative view of China comes at a time when the trust of the German population in the traditionally-allied other great power, the United States, is very low after four years of Donald Trump in the White House. If China and Russia had hoped that this would boost their public image in Germany, the survey shows that this was a false promise. While the EU is strongly trusted (57 percent), the numbers for United States (18 percent), Russia (15.1 percent), and China (10.7 percent) are all very low.

The low levels of trust correspond with a rather negative perception of the foreign policies of all three countries. While US foreign policy receives the worst scores with 59.8 percent, Chinese foreign policy is not far behind with 54.6 percent. However, the respondents appear to be more undecided when it comes to Chinese behavior on the world stage. 30.9 percent of respondents were unable to say whether positive or negative aspects of Chinese foreign policy prevail (24.9 percent say the same about US foreign policy). While more Germans want to coordinate German foreign policy with the US than with either China or Russia, an overwhelming majority does not want any such coordination. Again, foreign policy coordination within the EU finds strong support among Germans.

Asked more specifically about Germany’s foreign policy toward China, almost 30 percent are in favor of Germany actively engaging in an EU-China strategy. Another 21.4 percent opt for Germany being a follower of an EU-China strategy. Only 19.3 percent prefer an independent German policy toward China.

Human Rights Trump Trade and Investment

Asked which policies should be prioritized by Germany in its relations with China, cooperation with the country on global issues such as the containment of climate change, epidemics, and counter-terrorism are slightly ahead of the promotion of human rights and democracy in China. One needs to take into consideration, however, the fact that the figures for cooperation on global issues might have been particularly high at the time of the survey given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. More than two-thirds of the respondents also name cyber-security as a foreign policy priority in Germany’s relations with China. The enforcement of intellectual property rights and the promotion of trade and investment follow next.

In particular, the low-ranking of trade and investment promotion is surprising if one considers the export dependency of German industry. Only a minority (45.7 percent) identifies the prevention of China’s geopolitical expansion as a foreign policy priority of Germany. The survey does not identify whether Germans do not consider this an important topic or regard their country as not capable of striving for such a comprehensive and structural goal in international relations.

In summary, the poll indicates that Germans have not only grown more skeptical of China, but also support a more unitary and proactive European China policy, defending economic interests, but also political values.

Tim Rühlig is a Research Fellow at Utrikespolitiska institute (UI), the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, working on EU-China relations as well as Chinese foreign policy.

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