A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that public opinion towards China has reached record lows in 24 countries, particularly in high-income nations. The survey, which gathered the views of 27,000 adults, found that 67% of respondents held unfavorable views of China, while only 28% had favorable opinions. Many observers in the West are quick to blame Beijing’s perceived threat and aggressive diplomatic tactics, but this analysis is painfully ironic.
Experts like Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks, argue that China being the biggest threat to the US is a reality that decision-makers need to understand and acknowledge. Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific Program, believes that these survey results should be a wake-up call for Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, it is important to question the validity of these takes.
One major criticism of the Pew report is the limited scope of countries surveyed. With only 24 countries polled out of the 193 United Nations member states, it cannot be considered a true representation of global opinion. Furthermore, there is a strong selection bias towards high-income countries and American allies. However, some middle-income and poorer countries were included in the survey, and the data reveals that the Global South largely holds favorable views of China. Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and Mexico have positive opinions of China, especially due to their bilateral cooperation and involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Ironically, it is the so-called experts in the West who are primarily responsible for negative perceptions of China in the Global North. These individuals often disregard the influence of outside sources and attribute negative views solely to China’s alleged wrongdoings. In reality, negative perceptions of China have been fueled by media sensationalism, especially during events such as the coronavirus pandemic. The media’s coverage of the pandemic, including the mainstream platforming of the ‘lab-leak’ conspiracy theory, has contributed to the growing negativity towards China.
Moreover, the US national security state has exploited ideological biases in the media and has funded numerous think tanks, NGOs, and academic programs to disseminate anti-China propaganda. An example of this bias can be seen in the New York Times’ headline on China’s hydroelectric power production and coal use during a recent heatwave. The headline falsely claimed that heatwaves were deepening China’s addiction to coal, conflating short-term variations with long-term trends.
In many countries within America’s sphere of influence, there are mechanisms in place to exert ideological pressure and shape public opinion. Think tanks and NGOs funded by the US government actively push anti-China narratives. For example, the European Values Center for Security Policy, which is nudging Prague closer to supporting Taiwan independence, received funding from the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy. Other countries, such as Serbia, have witnessed a battle for hearts and minds as China’s positive impact on the country through the Belt and Road Initiative has generated positive public opinion. In response, US-funded organizations recommend funding think tanks, academics, and journalists to counter perceived Chinese disinformation.
This battle for hearts and minds between China and the US is likely to intensify in the future, with increasing incentives for China hawks. Legislators in the US have introduced bills that allocate significant budgets to negative news coverage against China. In contrast, China focuses on win-win cooperation in trade and infrastructure, benefiting countries that have suffered from historical exploitation by Western powers. It is clear that had the Pew Research Center surveyed all 193 UN member states, a different picture would have emerged, reflecting China’s more positive image in many parts of the world.