Discontent with China reaches historic highs as the pandemic rolls on

October 7, 2020, 9:52 AM UTC

Global perceptions of China turned sharply negative this year even as the world’s second-largest economy won increased recognition as an economic and political superpower. Those are among the findings of a survey of public opinion in 14 developed economies conducted by the Pew Research Center.

The survey, results of which were summarized in a report released Tuesday, found that a majority of respondents in all 14 countries hold unfavorable opinions of China. In nine of those countries—Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada—negative perceptions of China surged to their highest levels since the Center began polling on the topic a decade ago.

And yet, across the 14 nations surveyed, a median of 48% of those polled identified China as the world’s leading economic power, eclipsing the U.S., which a median of 35% of respondents identified as the world’s top power. Notably, in most European countries surveyed, about half or more of those questioned ranked China as the world’s leading economic power. In the Asia-Pacific region, a majority in Japan and South Korea picked the U.S. as the top power, while in Australia 53% said China was No. 1.

In the 14 nations surveyed, a median of 61% offered a negative assessment of China’s record in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic—far higher than the percentage of respondents offering negative views of how the virus was handled by their own countries or international entities like the World Health Organization or European Union. The only nation to earn harsher reviews for its response to the pandemic was the United States.

“Only the U.S. receives more negative evaluations from the surveyed publics, with a median of 84% saying the U.S. has handled the coronavirus outbreak poorly,” the report says.

Pew said perceptions that China mismanaged the virus contributed significantly to the rise in negative attitudes towards the country in other nations. Australia experienced the sharpest spike in antipathy, with 81% of respondents saying they view China unfavorably, up 24 percentage points from last year.

Relations between China and Australia deteriorated rapidly this summer, after Canberra pushed for an international inquiry into Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The two nations are now inching gradually towards a trade war, as Canberra moves to limit Chinese investment and Beijing imposes tariffs on Australian imports.

In the 14 nations surveyed, the rise in negative sentiment towards China began before the pandemic. U.S. enmity towards China has risen steadily since 2018 when the Trump administration began imposing trade sanctions on the nation. China’s relations with Canada have been strained since December that same year, when Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver and held on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The pandemic appears to have accelerated discontent with China—specifically, with President Xi Jinping. Across the 14 countries, a median 78% of respondents said they have “not too much or no confidence” in Xi to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” In nine of the surveyed countries, the level of distrust in President Xi saw a double-digit increase and reached historic heights.

But respondents professed even less faith in the American leader than in his Chinese counterpart. A median of 17% of those surveyed said they trust President Trump to do the right thing for international relations, compared to 19% who said the same for President Xi.