Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Public opinion on China undergoes sharp decline

DESPITE widespread talk of a rising China and an America in decline, the latest BBC World Service poll shows not just strong residual American soft power but actually an increase. At the same time, the data depicts a China whose influence is viewed as more negative than positive in an increasing number of countries.

A year-and-a-half after the election of Barack Obama, views of the United States around the world have improved, according to a poll of about 30,000 adults interviewed either in person or by telephone in 28 countries asked to consider the influence of various countries.

The surveys found that the US is viewed positively on balance in 20 of the 28 countries surveyed, confirming a trend that was discernible two years ago.

Surveys made public in 2008 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project found signs that America's global image was recovering after having plummeted after its decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

America is now viewed positively in 20 of the 28 countries, with an average of 46 per cent saying the US has a positive influence in the world, while 34 per cent say that it has a negative influence. By contrast, China is viewed positively in 15 of those countries.

Ironically, while America's image overseas is improving, a Pew Research Centre survey shows that almost 80 per cent of Americans say they don't trust Washington, with public confidence in the Federal Government at one of the lowest points in a half-century.
Fifteen of the 28 countries polled by the BBC have been surveyed every year since 2005. They are Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Britain and the US.

In 2005, 38 per cent of people in those countries regarded American influence as positive, but this number dropped to 28 per cent in 2007. This year, America's popularity has recovered and 40 per cent of those polled see the US' influence in the world as mostly positive.

But views of China have declined sharply. In 2005, 49 per cent of respondents thought that China's influence was mostly positive; 11 points higher than that for the US. However, China's numbers have fallen, reaching 34 per cent this year, trailing the US by six points.

As China's political, economic and military power have grown, global attention has focused on its influence and activities in Asia.

Public sentiment in the region is shifting rather dramatically. Japan, the world's second-largest economy, has for many years had a strained relationship with China. However, while 59 per cent of Japanese had a negative view of China last year, this number has fallen dramatically to 38 per cent.

This warming has taken place at a time when China has replaced the US as Japan's most important trading partner. Also, since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office last September, he has emphasised closer relations between Japan and Asia, in particular with China.

But Indians are moving in the other direction. Last year, Indians leaned towards positive views of China, 30 per cent versus 24 per cent, with many declining to state a view. Now, there are more Indians who view China negatively, 38 per cent versus 30 per cent who have positive views.

South Koreans are going even further than Indians, with 61 per cent viewing China negatively, compared with 50 per cent in 2008.

Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesians view China less negatively than before, with 43 per cent holding positive views and 29 per cent negative, compared with 37 per cent negative previously. And in the Philippines, sentiments have shifted sharply, from 52 per cent negative last year to 55 per cent positive today.

The official China Daily, responding to the BBC poll results, said public opinion was shaped by the Western media, which "are unsuitably seasoned with misunderstanding, misinterpretation or even bias and enmity".

However, it concluded optimistically, "as mutual understanding deepens, public opinion will change".

Public opinion is undoubtedly affected by the Western media. But this was true in previous years as well, when China's image was much more positive. So there must be other reasons that account for the deterioration of China's image, possibly including such events as the outbreaks of violence in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang last year, and the way they were put down.

Public opinion, especially views on foreign countries, may be fickle and subject to personal whims but they cannot be dismissed out of hand. They do provide an indication of how well governments are perceived to be doing, not by their own people but by international opinion.
Frank Ching for the New Straits Times

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