China’s Waning Global Prestige

Especially in Asia, China is losing friends and admirers
By Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is "Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live."
May 24, 2023Updated: May 24, 2023

Commentary

China is diminishing in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, especially with other Asians. That is a key conclusion to emerge from a massive global survey conducted by the famous Pew Research Center.

Pew’s weighing of a range of global opinions on China makes clear that Asians, in particular, but also Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans, have become increasingly wary of dealing with China. Though the Pew study’s most recent figures stem from 2019, more recent updates, though less complete, indicate strongly that the deteriorating trend documented by Pew has continued in more recent years (here and here).

Despite these negative opinions, the survey discovered no anti-Chinese prejudice or animus. This is evident in the universal wish across the globe for China to prosper. Wherever Pew went, people believed that Chinese growth was a “good thing,” to use the survey’s language, in general, and for the rest of the world. Even in Asia, most respondents welcome Chinese economic advances.

In Australia, for example, although the tension between Beijing and Canberra has become intense at times, some 65 percent of respondents still welcome China’s prosperity, and only 30 percent do not. Japan and other Asian nations are less skewed on this question but generally welcome Chinese growth. The only exception is India. There, only 20 percent of respondents see Chinese growth as a “good thing,” while fully 61 percent see it as negative for them and their country as well as the world generally. Considering that Indian and Chinese armed forces have engaged in sometimes violent border disputes, India’s outlier opinion mix is understandable.

The tone changes, however, when the questions move from general opinions to specifics on contact with China. When Pew asked people if Chinese investment in their country is a “good” or a “bad” thing, the percentages, at least in Asia, flipped. Some 66 percent of Australians, for example, resist Chinese investment, while only 30 percent embrace it. That is a perfect mirror image of Australian attitudes toward China’s economic success generally. Japan changed even more radically. There, only 16 percent of respondents welcome Chinese investment, while 75 percent reject it. The rest of Asia is more moderate but still shows a less positive attitude than in Pew’s more general question. The rest of the world is more positive than the Australians and the Asians but less enthusiastic when asked the general question about Chinese growth.

Strangely, given the mostly positive attitudes toward the benefits of Chinese growth, most of the world generally shows a negative feeling about China. The negative views are not about Chinese culture or Chinese people. That was not Pew’s question. The negative feeling is about the Chinese nation as it is currently organized. Latin America is the least critical. Its respondents rate about evenly divided, with half telling Pew they are positive on China generally and half telling Pew that they are negative.

Further north, however, in the United States and Canada, the positive falls to about 26 percent, about where it is in India. Europe—both east and west—is only slightly more positive, with an average of about 35 percent. Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines offer figures similar to Europe’s. Aside from Russia’s understandably strong 71 percent positive, the most positive views are in Africa and the Middle East, with some 60–70 percent in the positive camp.

What is most striking about Pew’s work is how things have changed over time. It seems that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s authoritarian drift and Beijing’s bullying strategies—economic, diplomatic, and military—have turned what was a welcoming world against China.

The biggest turn has emerged in Asia, which is hardly surprising since that is where China has been most active. In Japan, for example, positive percentages have fallen some 41 percentage points from a 55 percent positive 20 years ago to today’s 14 percent. South Korea’s positive percentage has fallen to 32 percent from some 66 percent some 20 years ago, a drop of 34 percentage points. Indonesia has dropped 37 percentage points from 73 percent positive 20 years ago to only 36 percent presently, and the Philippines has seen a 21 percentage point drop from 63 percent positive to 42 percent presently.

Although much of Pew’s elaborate work dates back to before the pandemic, updated material, though not nearly as thorough as the original survey, shows continued distrust of Beijing. That further deterioration certainly stands to reason. Suspicions about the origin of COVID-19 have hurt Chinese prestige, as China, during the pandemic and in its aftermath, showed itself a less reliable trading partner than previously thought.

Beijing has not helped its image with its high-handed attitude toward other nations, especially in Asia and among Belt and Road participants, as well as its use of its armed forces to intimidate neighbors. Its image no doubt has further suffered from how Beijing has used trade as a weapon, threatening, for example, to cut Japan off from rare earth elements, blocking Australian goods simply because Canberra questioned the origins of COVID-19, and blocking South Korean goods because of military purchases from the United States.

It is not a pretty picture and no doubt a disconcerting one to the leadership in Beijing.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.