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China has a global image problem

October 8, 2020, 11:23 AM UTC

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A new report by the Pew Research Center finds that China has won global recognition as an economic superpower.

The report, based on a survey of public opinion in 14 major democracies, observes that, in those nations, a median of 48% of respondents identified China not just as a leading economy but the leading economy in the world. The U.S. finished a distant second; across the 14 nations, the median of those polled who picked the U.S. as the world’s top economy was just 35%.

One might think Pew’s discovery would be a source of pride in China, where leaders of the Communist Party have long vowed to restore their nation to its rightful place on the global stage and reverse a “Century of Humiliation.” But I doubt the Pew report will get much attention in China’s state-controlled press. Its headline conclusion is not flattering for Beijing.

Pew researchers found that a majority of respondents in all 14 of the democracies surveyed hold unfavorable views of China. Moreover, as Fortune‘s Eamon Barrett reported yesterday, “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 have surged to their highest levels since the Center began polling on the topic a decade ago.”

China’s global image problem isn’t new; hostility towards China has been rising steadily for years. What is new is the scope and scale of the backlash—and the speed with which it is growing.

Among Pew’s most notable findings is that, in many Western nations, negative views of China have increased dramatically over the past three years. Between 2017 and 2020, anti-China sentiment jumped from 37% to 74% in the United Kingdom; from 47% to 73% in the U.S.; from 40% to 73% in Canada; and from 53% to 71% in Germany.

China fares no better in Asia, where negative opinions of the nation rose from 32% to 81% in Australia and from 47% to 73% in South Korea. In Japan, the percentage of respondents who say they view China unfavorably has declined from its 2013 peak of 93%, but remains at 86%—the highest negative rating for China among the 14 major democracies.

What accounts for this stark decline in global trust in China? Pew researchers don’t attempt a definitive explanation. The report does note, however, that the free fall in China’s favorability ratings parallels a drop in in confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping, and this year may reflect global discontent with China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Assessments of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak are generally much more negative” than those given to other nations or global institutions like the World Health Organization or the European Union, the report observes. (Xi may take cold comfort in the fact that in the 13 democracies other than the U.S., he is viewed more favorably than President Donald Trump, a point Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris mentioned at the debate Wednesday night.)

Today’s Financial Times, meanwhile, features a detailed assessment of how China lost the hearts and minds of a narrower demographic: American elites. Washington correspondent Demetri Sevastopulo opens with a look at the case of Joe Biden who, as vice president, played host to Xi on his 2012 visit to the U.S. just before ascending to China’s presidency. By all accounts, Biden was charmed, and praised Xi for his willingness to break the mould of a traditional Communist Party leader.

“This is a guy who wants to feel it and taste it,” Biden said at the time. “He’s prepared to show another side of the Chinese leadership.”

Fast forward to 2020 and candidate Biden has changed his tune. “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic—with a small d—bone in his body,” he said in Februrary. “This is a guy who is a thug.”

Sevastopulo solicits comment from U.S. foreign policy experts across the political spectrum, who all describe a common disillusionment with China in general and Xi in particular.

“American elite and popular opinion has fundamentally changed,” former Obama administration White House Asia advisor Evan Medeiros says. “We have moved from balancing co-operation and competition, to competition and confrontation.”

The piece suggests that Biden, should he win in November, will stake out a China policy that is no less hawkish than that of his predecessor. Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, argues the key difference between how Trump and Biden deal with China, is that Biden will work more closely than Trump with “like-minded allies” to increase pressure on China.

That’s an unsettling prospect for Beijing, which fumed quietly Tuesday while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rallied support from the Quad countries, a group of close U.S. allies including Japan, India, and Australia, for creation of a security bulwark against Chinese aggression in Asia.

China Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaouhui last month denounced the grouping as “an anti-China front line, also known as a ‘mini-NATO‘” that “reflected the Cold War mentality of the US.”

This week’s Eastworld Spotlight features a conversation with Chad Bown, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute of Political Economics. His “U.S.-China phase one trade tracker” is widely regarded as the most authoritative scorecard of China’s progress in fulfilling terms of the deal it struck with the White House in January to increase purchases of U.S. goods. Chad also offers keen insights into possible changes to U.S. trade strategy in the event of a Biden victory.

More Eastworld news below!

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

Eastworld news

A more civil debate

Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate featured a longer discussion on the U.S.’s policy towards China than last week’s presidential debate. Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris said Trump’s “approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs, and America’s standing,” railing against Trump’s trade war and decision to pull U.S. health officials from Wuhan before the pandemic. Vice President Mike Pence commended Trump for “standing up to China.” And, if Trump wins, he said, “we’re going to level the playing field and we’re going to hold China accountable for what they did with coronavirus.” Nikkei Asian Review

Beijing vs. the Light-house

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has gone from one of the most hawkish voices in Washington, D.C., to one of the most conciliatory. Until recently, Lighthizer helped spearhead Trump’s trade war against China, the culmination of years spent criticizing China’s trade practices as a congressional staffer and trade lawyer. Now Lighthizer is battling even more hawkish voices in the Trump administration as he tries to hold together the phase one trade agreement China and the U.S. signed in January. He also reportedly opposes a recent U.S. state department push to broker a trade pact with Taiwan, a move that would likely upset Beijing. New York Times

A sealed city

In a sweeping, on-the-ground look into Wuhan, the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler visits the city where COVID-19 first broke out, providing a portrait of those who faced the initial chaos and tragedies of the global pandemic. Hessler navigates a city that has largely defeated the virus, yet he is unsparing in critiquing China’s efforts to cover up information in the initial days of the outbreak. Unfortunately, he writes, much of the information about Wuhan's early experience in the pandemic remains shrouded in secrecy. “For the time being many memories will remain in the sealed city,” Hessler writes. New Yorker

The (not yet) Hawaii of China

China has long sought to turn Hainan, a beach island in southern China, into its own version of Hawaii. But for all of Beijing’s financial support, the island has largely failed to live up to its potential. In 2018, just 1.2% of the island's 76 million tourists were foreigners, and experts say the island remains hard to navigate without speaking Chinese; the restaurants and hotels fail to compete with places like Thailand. Chinese military presence on the island means foreigners cannot fly into Hainan’s international airport and visitors are restricted in where they can stay and take photos. South China Morning Post

Coronavirus by country

Myanmar

Almost all of the Myanmar's nearly 22,000 COVID-19 cases Myanmar have come within the last month. This unique curve is largely explained by the country's testing issues. In the spring, Myanmar could only test hundreds of people per day. By summer, its capacity ramped up to several thousand per day, at which point officials believed the first wave of the virus had run its course. Now, Myanmar is routinely recording daily highs in cases and the country has one of the highest positive testing rates in the world. In response to the burgeoning second wave, Myanmar is enforcing stay-at-home orders in Yangon City and Rakhine state, two of the hardest hit areas, but testing centers are reaching their breaking points. Frontier Magazine

Markets and movers

Google India – Google announced that it will delay implementing a policy requiring app developers to use its platform for online payments in India until 2022. Google’s new policy, which will go into effect globally in September 2021, caused an uproar against Google in India’s tech community. Fortune 

MiniSo – The Chinese retailer, backed by tech giant Tencent, is aiming to raise $562.4 million in an upcoming U.S. IPO. The company, which sells a variety of household and consumer goods, may be valued at upwards of $10 billion in its debut later this year. Reuters

Ant Group – The Trump administration may impose restrictions on the Chinese financial technology giant over national security concerns. Officials are still discussing if and how the U.S. may limit the Alibaba-backed company, but such a move may dampen Ant Group’s sky-high expectations of its blockbuster debut in a dual listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai later this year. Bloomberg 

Air Asia – AirAsia X, the long-haul arm of Malaysian airliner AirAsia, says it is attempting to restructure $15.3 billion of debt due to sustaining heavy losses during the pandemic. Malaysia’s other major airline, Malayasian Airways, is in a similarly critical state and is carrying out its own restructuring plan. Reuters

Final figure

50%

Southeast Asia may benefit from a boom in producing notebook computers, according to the Taiwanese thinktank Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute. At the moment, Southeast Asia only produces a small fraction of the world’s notebook computers, but the report says that by 2030 countries like Thailand and Vietnam will account for half of the world’s production. This growth will largely be driven as manufacturers move away from China, which currently produces roughly 90% of the world’s notebook computers, as manufactures look to find cheaper labor and avoid getting caught in tensions between the U.S. and China. Financial Times