What Europe Thinks ...

March 30, 2021

What Europe Thinks … About Dealing with China

Beijing’s image has deteriorated markedly in 2020, though the picture in Central and Eastern Europe is more mixed. But even there, a sense of disillusionment is setting in.

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Over these months China has lost Europe.” This now famous April 2020 quote by German Green MEP Reinhard Buetikofer captured the perceptions in European debates throughout a tumultuous year in Europe-China relations. Interestingly, Chinese media and diplomats make little mention of the European public opinion reversal against their country.

Politically, Beijing may be facing a growing backlash—from Huawei bans and investment screening measures, to Lithuania and Estonia snubbing President Xi Jinping at this year’s 17+1 summit, and most recently the historic (albeit mostly symbolic) EU sanctions against 11 individuals and entities for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Yet, Chinese leaders insist that “so-called human rights issues” are unduly “politicizing […] otherwise amicable bilateral relations” (China Daily) and habitually imply that the “people are smart” enough to see through allegedly hostile “anti-China” policies. By contrast, European academics and activists are accusing Berlin and Brussels of prioritizing narrow corporate interests instead of responding to legitimate “public pressure” to finally play hardball with China.

In a context where “European public opinion” on China is being harnessed to serve quite different purposes, understanding what ordinary Europeans really think about dealing with China and how these views have evolved in the context of the US-China “trade war” and the COVID-19 pandemic appears more important than ever.

The Emergence of a “European” Opinion?

Judging from media and think tank headlines over the past year, the picture appears quite straightforward: with a  slew of news reports and analyses including, “How the Coronavirus Pandemic Shattered Europe’s Illusions of China” (Carnegie, July 2020), “How European views on China are hardening in the wake of Covid-19” (New Statesman, August 2020), “China, seeking a friend in Europe, finds rising anger and frustration” (The New York Times, September 2020), and “How Europe is growing wary of Beijing” (European Council on Foreign Relations, September 2020).

These unisono assessments have been corroborated by recent surveys in several EU member states. In October 2020, the US-based Pew Research Center presented an update of its panel data on evaluations of China across advanced economies, showing that in the UE as in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and South Korea, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs.

Negative opinions of China within the Western European countries surveyed have reached their highest level in Sweden (85 percent), which remains entangled in a long-term diplomatic row with Beijing over human rights and citizenship. Even more dramatic are the negative views of President Xi, whose tight-fisted leadership and relentless crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang appear to have completely alienated publics in liberal democracies: “No confidence” ratings for Xi ranged from 70 percent in the Netherlands to 82 percent in Denmark and Sweden, surging between 9 and 21 percentage points within one year.

The only European country in the survey without a significant deterioration of opinions toward China due to the COVID-19 pandemic was Italy (with a rather constant 62 percent negative opinions). This is perhaps explained by the fact that over 60 percent of Italians perceived Beijing as having helped their country during the pandemic, compared to less than half acknowledging help from Brussels.

COVID-19, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang

An important caveat, of course, is whether something like a “European public opinion” even exists on any issue. Paying attention to cross-national, and cross-regional (East-West and North-South) differences appears particularly important on a fundamental foreign policy issue that now concerns the very identity of Europe in a world shaped by a new bipolar superpower confrontation. Indeed, both American and German observers often display a strong Western European or even a “E3” (Germany, France, and the UK) bias when discussing “European opinions.” Notably, the above-mentioned Pew study only covers “advanced economies” from Western Europe, with no single representative from Central or Eastern European countries.

Based on the evolution of China-related media discourses throughout 2019 and 2020, it is safe to say that the deterioration of views on China and Xi Jinping in Western Europe has been strongly influenced by three factors: First, the Chinese origin of the Sars-Cov-2 virus and the impression of disingenuous “mask diplomacy.” Second, by mounting evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese state against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. And third, by the relentless crackdown on the civil rights movement in Hong Kong, in blatant violation of Beijing’s international law obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration (which, before Brexit, European diplomacy also felt a responsibility to uphold). However, due to former US President Donald Trump’s even deeper unpopularity in Western Europe, Washington’s heavy-handed pressure to push back harder against China has rather helped the People’s Republic’s image in Europe.

Disillusionment in Eastern Europe

But when looking further south and east of Berlin, the picture is far more complex. Thankfully, a recent cross-national survey study led by Richard Turcsányi at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) adds a more balanced East-West perspective. The study, “European public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19,” collected data from five Western and five Central and Eastern European member states of the EU, plus the United Kingdom, Serbia, and Russia in the fall of 2020.

The authors find that negative popular views of China are significantly more pronounced in North-Western Europe and the Czech Republic, where China policy rows escalated in 2019 when Prague swapped its sister city Beijing for Taipei. But while feelings toward China are less negative in other Visegrád countries, it is worth noting that “trust” in China is much lower compared to trust in the US and especially in the EU across the board. For instance, Hungarians put much more faith in Europe and America than in their own prime minister’s favorite allies in Beijing and Moscow.

Looking at the most pressing policy areas in relations with China, the CEIAS study finds that “cooperation on global issues” and cybersecurity dominate across the EU. While Western publics tend to prioritize human rights advocacy over trade and investment, this priority is reversed in all Central and Eastern European countries. Turcsányi et al.’s study does not allow diachronic comparisons but political developments and public discussions in those countries suggest that the initial euphoria over Chinese investment promises related to the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the 17+1 (formerly 16+1) format has faded. Disappointment over unkept investment promises and stalled infrastructure projects increasingly dominates perceptions of China.

Loss of Soft Power

Against this background, it appears truly paradoxical that, under German leadership of both the EU Council and the European Commission, the EU finally agreed to a “comprehensive” agreement on investment with China at the end of a year that saw such heavy blows to China’s image in Europe. General public sentiment may come to play a more salient role in the European Parliament ratification process ahead—and China’s sanctioning of four MEPs including Buetikofer in response to the EU’s Xinjiang sanctions may well make that impossible. It remains to be seen how different national governments —particularly in Germany—will address the widening chasm between vested economic interests in their own leading industries and public opinion.

Overall, recent opinion surveys with standardized questions support the argument of the ECFR’s Asia Program director, Janka Oertel, concerning a “new China consensus” in Europe. Policy discussions in European capitals, however, remain far from consensual. In particular, the perception that “the others are always the problem” remains rather sticky: Thus, in German public debates, the EU’s ambition to “speak with one voice” toward China appears to be consistently undermined by Hungary, Greece, and other “unreliable” partners who seem particularly susceptible to China’s “authoritarian advance” and refuse to support joint statements on human rights or principles of international law. By contrast, the main problem as seen from other countries is the Franco-German hegemony in European China policy, with Germany in particular benefitting most economically from close China ties while lecturing others about human rights.

In sum, any comprehensive European turnabout in dealing with an assertive China would require a translation of the emerging convergence in European public opinions into a more common political understanding of where the real problems and bottlenecks lie when it comes to formulating a common EU China policy.

Bertram Lang is a Research Associate in Political Sciences with a focus on China and East Asia at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and a policy consultant focusing on Global China and EU-China relations.

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