The world’s public opinion on China has changed significantly over the past few years. While Europe’s sentiments toward the new Asian superpower have hardened rather recently, China’s image in Asia has experienced a longer and slower decline. It might not be all that surprising that liberal democracies with close relations to the West such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea view China’s growing power and assertiveness on the world stage with worries, but even Southeast Asians are less sympathetic towards China than 10 years ago.
86 percent of Japanese have a negative opinion of China today, while only 42 percent had a similarly negative view in 2002. The decline is similar in Australia (81 percent negative compared to 40 percent in 2008) and South Korea (75 percent in 2020 vs. 31 percent in 2002), as the study “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries” by the American Pew Research Center, shows.
Shigeto Sonoda, Professor of Sociology at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo, interprets the overall decline of China’s image as result of the crumbling “peaceful rise”-narrative, that had determined the perception of China for the last few decades. China’s increasingly aggressive attitude and behavior, for example in the South China Sea and at the contested border with India characterizes Beijing’s new role on the world stage—and not many Asians are happy about it. China’s growing military power is seen with consistent worry all over Asia, in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, more than 90 percent consider it a “bad thing.”
Backlash against the BRI
South Asia presents an exception insofar as the region is characterized by the India-Pakistan rivalry. While anti-China sentiments in India are soaring, Islamabad celebrates its ever-growing friendship with Beijing. In India, where China is generally seen as a rival and difficult neighbor, public opinion about the country has gone from bad to worse. According to the “Mood of the Nation Poll” by the “India Today” magazine, 84 percent of Indians believe that “India cannot trust China” and 59 percent believe that “India should go to war with China over the border conflict.”
But even the celebrated friendship between Pakistan and China has its risks. In August this year, “protests erupted in Pakistan’s port city Gwadar against a severe shortage of water and electricity and threats to livelihoods, part of a growing backlash against China’s multibillion-dollar belt and road projects in the country,” The Guardian reported.
It is not only Pakistan that sees China’s flagship infrastructure development plan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that was initially welcomed in many countries, more critically now—based on experiences made since its inception in 2013. The study “Belt and Road Initiative. The View from Asia-Pacific” by CMS Legal Services, a consultancy based in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia, “found diverging attitudes to BRI, with international enthusiasm weakening much more than Chinese support.”
The study from 2020 observes a “dramatic turn in opinion over the past year.” 59 percent of respondents in the Asia Pacific region report “negative sentiments” towards the BRI, compared to only 18 percent just a year before. 80 percent of the CMS’ customers found “the process of participating in BRI projects “more challenging than expected,” 56 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the “outcome of their involvement in BRI projects.” “The main problem for us was that we were not updated about changes in plans and the reporting structure was not functional,” said a contractor from Singapore.
Lack of Transparency
While China’s changing international role is the result of many long-term factors such as the country’s growing economic strength and internal political developments under President Xi Jinping, Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the increasingly negative perception of the country. 79 percent of Japanese and South Koreans as well as 73 percent of Australians find that “China did a bad job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.” While Beijing’s lack of transparency in its political maneuvering around the COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan has obviously cost it trust, the virus has also affected the global economy significantly—with repercussions for the BRI project.
84 percent of Japanese, 83 percent of South Koreans, and 79 percent of Australians said that they have “no confidence” in President Xi anymore. Meanwhile, 69 percent of investors in the Asia Pacific region believe that “some BRI projects will become unsustainable and will have to be restructured or abandoned.”
Other factors, which vary from country to country, have also contributed to the overall deterioration of the Chinese image, for example the discrimination against Uighur Muslims. Human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang province have fanned anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia. This might have serious security implications in the Muslim-majority country, which had seen large-scale anti-Chinese violence in the past. The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict reported that “affiliates of the Islamic State terrorist group in Indonesia have increased their anti-Chinese rhetoric on social media during the pandemic in the hope of using the COVID-19 outbreak as a pretext to target either those of Chinese descent or Chinese expatriates living in the country.”
On the other hand, China has won a strange bedfellow in form of the new Taliban government in Kabul. “China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us, because it is ready to invest and rebuild our country,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid recently said in an interview. Beijing knows very well that it has to tread carefully in Afghanistan for a variety of reasons, but it seems clear that becoming a patron of a fundamentalist Mullah-regime in Kabul, will not exactly help boost China’s sympathy ratings in the rest of the world.
Britta Petersen was a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi and now works as an advisor for Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).