Distrust of China jumps to new highs

DT Next - - EDIT - CHRIS BUCK­LEY

Xi Jin­ping cel­e­brates China’s bat­tle against the coro­n­avirus as a suc­cess. But in the United States and other wealthy democ­ra­cies, the pan­demic has driven neg­a­tive views of China to new heights, a sur­vey pub­lished on Tues­day showed.

The ill­ness, deaths and dis­rup­tion caused by the coro­n­avirus in those coun­tries have in­ten­si­fied al­ready strong pub­lic distrust of China, where the virus emerged late last year, the re­sults from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s sur­vey in­di­cated. “Un­favourable opinion has soared over the past year,” said the sur­vey on views of China taken this year in 14 coun­tries in­clud­ing Ja­pan, South Korea, Canada and Ger­many, Italy and other Euro­pean na­tions. “To­day, a ma­jor­ity in each of the sur­veyed coun­tries has an un­favourable opinion of China.”

The re­sults il­lus­trate how much neg­a­tive opin­ions of China have taken hold around the world in re­cent years. To China’s lead­ers, such wary at­ti­tudes could present ob­sta­cles for the Com­mu­nist Party’s am­bi­tions of ex­pand­ing Bei­jing’s in­flu­ence. The tide of pub­lic distrust could make co­op­er­a­tion harder even on is­sues where na­tional in­ter­ests align. “Pub­lic opinion is a pow­er­ful con­straint,” said Natasha Kas­sam, a for­mer Aus­tralian diplo­mat who is a re­search fel­low at the Lowy In­sti­tute in Syd­ney, where she stud­ies pub­lic opinion and for­eign pol­icy. “We can see in both Aus­tralia and the United States, for ex­am­ple, sour­ing pub­lic opinion has served as a pow­er­ful driver for gov­ern­ments to be par­tic­u­larly vo­cal” about China.

The U.S. sec­re­tary of state, Mike Pom­peo, was in Tokyo on Tues­day for meet­ings with his coun­ter­parts from Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and In­dia — all na­tions that have had icy re­la­tions with China. Pom­peo is of­ten con­demned by Chi­nese of­fi­cials as an ide­o­log­i­cal war­rior bent on sub­du­ing Bei­jing.

In many Western coun­tries, the coro­n­avirus cri­sis ap­pears to have deep­ened pub­lic un­ease about China and Xi, China’s proudly au­thor­i­tar­ian leader. Across the 14 coun­tries sur­veyed, an av­er­age of 61 per­cent of re­spon­dents said China had done a bad job of re­spond­ing to the out­break.

In the United States, neg­a­tive views about China in­creased by 13 per­cent­age points com­pared to a sim­i­lar sur­vey last year. Close to three-quar­ters of 1,003 Amer­i­can re­spon­dents sur­veyed in June and July said they now had a some­what or very un­favourable view of China.

Distrust of Xi’s in­ter­na­tional in­ten­tions reached new highs in ev­ery coun­try sur­veyed, ex­cept for Ja­pan and Spain. In the United States, Canada, Aus­tralia, Ja­pan and sev­eral Western Euro­pean na­tions, roughly half of the re­spon­dents said they had “no con­fi­dence at all” in Xi.

“I think this sen­ti­ment is likely to per­sist be­cause of longer-term trends in China to­ward grow­ing re­pres­sion,” said Jes­sica Chen Weiss, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Cor­nell Univer­sity who stud­ies Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy. “As long as its or­der of pri­or­i­ties re­mains in place, it will be dif­fi­cult for the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party to re­ally turn around the trends in pub­lic opinion overseas.”

The rise in dis­ap­prov­ing opin­ions of China was stark­est in Aus­tralia, which has been mired in diplo­matic flare-ups with Bei­jing in re­cent months.

Aus­tralia has protested the de­ten­tion in China of Cheng Lei, an Aus­tralian news an­chor work­ing for Chi­nese state-run tele­vi­sion, and Yang Hengjun, an Aus­tralian busi­ness­man and writer born in China who is ac­cused of es­pi­onage, charges that his sup­port­ers say are base­less. The num­ber of Aus­tralian re­spon­dents with neg­a­tive views of China grew by 24 per­cent­age points com­pared to a year ago, so that 81 per­cent said they saw China un­favourably. That was a dras­tic turn from 2017, when 64 per­cent of Aus­tralian re­spon­dents said they had a favourable view of China.

“Un­til two years ago, the Aus­tralian pub­lic very much saw China as an eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity,” said Ms. Kas­sam, the Aus­tralian re­searcher. China’s re­sponse to the out­break has only deep­ened skep­ti­cism in Aus­tralia, she said.

In in­ter­views, sev­eral Syd­ney res­i­dents said that China could not be held en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for the global spread of the coro­n­avirus, but that the cri­sis had shown how ex­posed Aus­tralia, and the rest of the world, was to Chi­nese power.

Chris Buck­ley is chief China correspond­ent for NYT©2020

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