My perspective on the results of the “Global Attitudes” Survey on China and the United States

Eiichi Kawahara

In June 2021, the Pew Research Center published the results of the “global attitudes survey on China and the United States” 1 conducted in 17 countries/regions, which was partially reported in certain media outlets. In this article, I would like to share my perspective and view on the highlights and background of the survey results.

The above poll is conducted annually. Unfortunately, the survey does not cover countries such as India, which has border disputes with China, or Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, major countries in Latin America and Africa where China’s influence is growing. In China, US pollsters cannot conduct a survey because of restrictions.

All countries surveyed have free press, with their citizens having means to ensure transparency of government policy, and direct access to information from abroad. In addition, there was no government intervention in this survey. Under these conditions, the survey results provide a useful indicator of the attitudes and sentiments of the people of each country. As the pandemic continued, the survey methodology was changed from face-to-face to telephone interviews.
1 Spring 2021 Global Attitudes Survey, Pew Research Center Majorities Say China Does Not Respect the Personal Freedoms of Its People | Pew Research Center

Confidence in US President improves dramatically

The survey results (conducted three months after the Biden Administration’s inauguration) show a stark contrast with those of the same period last year. There has been a dramatic improvement in the level of public confidence in every surveyed country since the new US administration took over. The reason for this significant change is captured well in President Biden’s first foreign policy speech on February 4, in which he declared to State Department officials that “America is back” and “Diplomacy is back.” 2
Public opinion in all surveyed countries welcomed the new administration’s return to traditional American diplomacy and its resumption of the role as a world leader.

Comparing the level of confidence between President Biden and President Xi, it is interesting to see the graph showing how people in each country feel about President Biden and President Xi.
The graph shows the level of confidence in Presidents Biden and Xi in their respective dealing with international affairs.
Confidence in President Biden is high in all countries, with the highest of 86% (in the Netherlands) and the lowest of 60% (in the US itself among others). In contrast, confidence in President Xi is low in all countries. The lowest level of confidence was in Japan at 10%, followed by the US at 15%, with both Australia and Germany at 16% and both the UK and NZ at 24%. Singapore has an exceptionally high level of confidence in President Xi at 70%, exactly the same level for President Biden.

Furthermore, the difference in confidence rates between Biden and Xi is shown in points on the right-hand column of the same graph. In the US, 60% of its citizens have confidence in Biden while confidence in Xi is 15%, hence, a difference of 45 points. The largest gap of confidence is in Sweden at 73 points, followed by Japan (63 points), Germany (62 points), the Netherlands (61 points) and in Canada, Belgium, and Australia (all three at 59 points), France (56), Spain (53), South Korea (52), Italy (51), NZ (50), UK (48), US (45) and Greece (31). Of note is the result of Singapore.

For Singapore, the US is the most important country in terms of national security and foreign investment. On the other hand, China is its largest trading partner. Singapore is a multi-ethnic city-state and many of its citizens have their roots in southern China, so they have a natural affinity with China, which may have been reflected in the survey results.
In March this year, in an interview with BBC, Singapore Prime Minister Lee expressed his concern about China’s rise to power, but also his honest wish to avoid a situation where the US-China confrontation would escalate in such a way that he would eventually have to choose sides.3 Although not included in this survey, other ASEAN countries, highly dependent on trade with China, probably find themselves in similar circumstances.
3 Singapore PM: ‘Considerable risk’ of severe US-China tensions – BBC News

Sweden was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, in fact as early as in May 1950. Many of its citizens, however, now have a harsh view on China. This can be understood as a reflection of past events, such as China’s refusal to issue a press ID to a Swedish journalist who published articles critical of China, and China’s enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in June last year, which was criticized by human rights-conscious Sweden as well as by the US and other European countries.

Confidence in President Xi’s handling of international affairs

Confidence in President Xi is extremely low in many countries. In Singapore, however, confidence in President Xi is exceptionally high at 70%. The next country of interest is Greece, where confidence in President Xi is a relatively high 36% (the second highest following Singapore).

Recently, relations between China and Greece have become closer.
A symbolic example of this was President Xi’s visit to Greece in November 2019. Greece has been suffering from budget deficits over many years and has long been the worst deficit-stricken country in the EU. China reportedly attaches great importance to Greece’s role as a transit point for land and sea transport with Europe in the context of its “One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR)”.
China’s state-owned shipping giant, China Ocean Shipping Group (COSCO Group), invested a large sum of money to expand the port of Piraeus on the outskirts of Athens. It was also reported that President Xi remarked, after his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who had just taken office in July of the same year, “We want to increase the transport capacity of this port and expand the capacity of land and sea logistics between China and Europe.”

However, China’s response to Covid-19 has been increasingly seen in a positive light over the past year. In all countries surveyed, the rating of China was higher than in the previous year.
This is probably due to the very low number of incidences announced over the past year following the lockdown triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak in China. The difference is striking when compared with the still high number of new infections reported in countries such as the US and most Europe.

WHO experts conducted an investigation of the Covid-19 in China in February 2021, more than a year after its outbreak, following protracted negotiations with China. The WHO experts disclosed later that in some cases, the original data were not provided to them, and that the final report also reflected Chinese views. In response to the WHO experts’ report released at the end of last March, a joint statement was issued by 14 countries, including Japan, Australia, South Korea, the U.S., calling for fair and transparent scientific investigations and a strengthened system for prompt implementation of expert-led investigations. Although these critical views on the WHO investigation were reported in the media, they do not seem to have had much impact on the poll.

Vaccine Diplomacy continues

In the face of the present vaccine shortage, China has provided 300 million doses of vaccines to the rest of the world in aid to about 80 countries and as exports to over 40 countries. Until quite recently, the US and EU countries gave priority to domestic vaccination and restricted vaccine exports. In these circumstances, many countries have welcomed Chinese vaccines even if they are less effective than those produced in the West. There have also been reports in a Latin American country that China pressed it to shift its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China in exchange for vaccines.

At the G7 Summit in Cornwall, UK, in mid-June this year, the seven advanced countries pledged to provide additional one billion doses of vaccine to developing countries, including 500 million doses from the United States. It is hoped that this commitment will be swiftly implemented.

At the COVAX AMC Summit held jointly by Japan and Gavi on 2 June, Japan announced that it would contribute a total of $1 billion (additional $800 million to the already committed $200 million), to help achieve the global objective of 1.8 billion vaccine doses, or $8.2 billion, to cover nearly 30% of the world’s population.

At the same summit, Prime Minister Suga announced that 30 million doses of vaccines produced in Japan will be provided to developing countries via COVAX. In accordance with PM Suga’s announcement, vaccines were air-transported from Japan to Taiwan and ASEAN (Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) by mid-July. PM Suga also announced at the 9th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting held on 2 July this year that Japan would provide 3 million doses of vaccine by the end of this year.

Divided public opinion on relationship with China

Opinions are divided in Asia-Pacific Pacific countries as to whether economic relations with China should be prioritized or human rights issues in China should be prioritized. South Korea (57%) and Singapore (55%) prioritize strengthening economic ties with China even if it means not addressing its human rights issues, while NZ (80%), Australia (78%), the US (70%) and Japan (54%) prioritize promotion of human rights in China even if it means damaging economic ties.

As for South Korea, its historic ties with China and the fact that China has been its largest importer may have influenced its public sentiment. In 2017, China opposed the deployment of the US-made THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and imposed economic sanctions on South Korea. South Korean companies were forced to withdraw from the Chinese market. This was a major blow to the South Korean economy and its trade.

On the other hand, in terms of national security, South Korea’s relationship with China seems to stand on a delicate balance. Ever since the country fought alongside with the US in the Korean War, the US has been its steadfast ally. On the other hand, President Moon Jae-in is reportedly keen for President Xi to visit South Korea and strongly hopes for the reunification with North Korea. There seem to exist special and complicated sentiments among the South Korean people.

For Japan, too, China is its largest trading partner, and there are voices from its business community that relations should improve. I believe that Japan is now pursuing a grand strategy in its dealing with China, while keeping domestic public opinion on its side, and working with its allies and like-minded countries, i.e., the US, EU and Indo-Pacific countries that share the same values.

China ignores individual freedoms

An overwhelmingly high proportion of respondents answered “yes” to the question of whether individual freedoms are ignored in China. Sweden has the highest percentage at 95%, followed by 92% in South Korea, 91% in Australia and the Netherlands, 90% in the US and Japan, Italy (89%), Belgium (88%), NZ and Spain (87%), Germany (85%), UK (84%), France (83%) and Greece (75%). It is noteworthy that in Singapore, though 60% of respondents say, “China ignores individual freedoms”, but at the same time the proportion of those who see China as respecting freedom is high at 35%.

In a democracy, it seems natural that its citizens are sensitive to the suppression of freedom of speech and violation of human rights. The US, Europe and many other advanced countries, including Japan, have expressed their deep concern about and criticism of the enactment of the State Security Maintenance Law in Hong Kong in June last year. The UK opposes the implementation of the State Security Maintenance Law and is in the process of accepting some 5 million Hong Kong residents as British Nationals Overseas. To avoid monitoring by the authorities, one can apply online. According to a recent report, about 36,000 people have already made applications. 4

China, having celebrated its centenary of the founding of the Communist Party on 1 July, is expected to face further confrontation with the US and other democracies as it moves forward on its path toward a great power status while maintaining its authoritarian regime. Under the ongoing “information warfare” conducted on an unprecedented scale, it is extremely interesting to see how public opinion about China will change in each country over time.

Eiichi Kawahara: Japanese Ambassador to Guatemala (2013-16), former Consul-General in Miami.
He served in South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, the United States and Guatemala. Also served in the United Nations Bureau, Economic Cooperation Bureau, Economic Affairs Bureau, North American Bureau, Latin America Bureau, and Consular Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan, and was involved in UN/FAO, UN/ESCAP, APEC, ICAO, and Japan-Mexico EPA negotiations. He worked at the ASEAN trade investment tourism promotion center and was acting Secretary General for the Foreign Press Center of Japan. He is currently visiting professor at Wakayama University, and Special Assistant to the Foreign Minister in Japan.

Note: The content of this article reflects the author’s view and perspective and does not represent the views of any organization.