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Xi Jinping is the problem, not the people of China

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Xi Jinping’s popularity is diminishing globally. China, however, people still favour, because of its economic strengths, though with a bit of scepticism.

With each passing day and with the added strain of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more nations are reassessing their relationship with China.

It appears that China is no longer the favoured partner to tango with on the global political stage. In fact, China’s missteps could lead to a fall of nations dancing with this hidden dragon.

I remember in 2019 analysing the Pew Research Centre Survey on China. The study was titled “Attitude Towards China”. The research revealed that around the world people were divided in their opinions on China.

Reportedly in the survey, a median of 40% across 34 countries surveyed had a favourable view of China, while a median of 41% had an unfavourable view of China. However, China got the most positive views from Russia, Nigeria and Lebanon, while it got the most negative views from Japan, Sweden and Canada.

The most intriguing data was that it was noticed that the higher a country’s perceived level of corruption, as designated by Transparency International, the more favourably that nation tends to view China.

Interestingly, investment from China is only weakly related to views on China across the countries included in the survey. Despite pouring hundreds of dollars into the Belt and Road Initiative, especially in emerging economies, the side of capital investment or construction contracts funded by China in a country is only weakly related to that country’s overall views of China. Indonesia, for example, had received more than $47 billion for capital investments and projects from China since 2005, but attitudes towards China are split evenly, with 36% favourable and 36% unfavourable.

Post Covid-19, most global nations are no longer favouring China, they are merely tolerating it.
The Pew Research Centre Survey on “Attitude Towards China” conducted across 14 nations in 2020 pointed out that views on China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies, and unfavourable opinion has soared over the past year. Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries have an unfavourable opinion of China. And in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest point.

The Pew report elucidated that the negative views on China increased most in Australia, where 81% now say they see the country unfavourably, up 24 percentage points since last year. In the UK, around three-quarters now see the country in a negative light—up 19 points. And in the US, negative views of China have increased nearly 20 percentage points since President Donald Trump took office, rising 13 points since just last year.

The survey further revealed that the rise in unfavourable view was on account of the widespread criticism over how China had handled the Covid-19 pandemic. A median of 61% nations surveyed opined that China had done a bad job in dealing with the pandemic outbreak.

The disapproval of how China handled the Covid-19 pandemic also raised questions on the people’s confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping. A median of 78% in the survey said that they have not too much or no confidence in Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs, including at least seven-in-ten in every country surveyed. The survey also highlighted that the lack of confidence in Xi Jinping was at a historic high in every country for which trend data was available during the conducting of the survey. In most countries, the percentage saying they have not too much or no confidence in him has grown by double digits since last year. For example, in the Netherlands, whereas around half distrusted Xi last year, today 70% say the same—up 17 percentage points.

But China is not out of the race completely at least in comparison to the US. As I said, they are not favoured but tolerated.

The Pew survey reveals that the perception of how China had handled the coronavirus pandemic colours people’s overall views on China. The report further revealed that those who think China had done a bad job dealing with Covid-19 are much more likely to have an unfavourable view of the country—and the difference is at least 20 percentage points in every country surveyed. For example, in Italy, those who say China has done a bad job handling the coronavirus pandemic are twice as likely to report an unfavourable view of China—82% vs 41%, respectively. In Europe, more see China as the world’s top economic power than the US.

So while the world economies brace for a contraction in the year ahead, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, including those of the US, Japan and the European nations, the Chinese economy is expected to achieve positive growth. Most nations surveyed identified China as the world’s leading economic power. The US came second to China.

The problem for China is not China, but China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Distrust in President Xi has reached unprecedented highs in all countries. The increase in distrust has been especially sharp in the last year; nine of the 12 countries surveyed by Pew Research Centre have seen a double-digit increase in the share of those who say they have no confidence in Xi. In Australia, for example, 54% had little or no confidence in Xi in 2019, and now 79% say the same, a 25 percentage point increase.

While 2019 and 2020 Pew Research Centre surveys focused on China’s relationship with other global nations, the recent survey conducted by Pew Research Centre and released in June 2021, revealed that across advanced economies in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region, few people think the Chinese government respects the personal freedoms of its people. In 15 of the 17 public surveyed by Pew Research Center, eight-in-ten or more hold this view. This sense is also at or near historic highs in nearly every place surveyed, having risen significantly in countries like Italy, South Korea, Greece, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom since 2018.

The 2021 Pew Research Centre survey revealed that:
* Few have confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs. These negative evaluations of him are at or near historic highs in most places surveyed.
* Across the Asia-Pacific region, opinions are mixed about whether it is more important to try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations with China, or whether it’s more important to prioritize strengthening economic relations with China, even if it means not addressing human rights issues. While a majority in New Zealand (80%), Australia (78%) and Japan (54%) prioritize promoting human rights, as well as a plurality in Taiwan (45%), majorities in South Korea and Singapore prioritize strengthening economic relations. Those who prioritize economic relations with the US over China tend to be much more likely to support promoting human rights.
* Europeans approve of China’s handling of Covid-19 much more than those in the Asia-Pacific. Europeans also overwhelmingly consider strong economic ties with the US as more important than strong ties with China, while Asian-Pacific publics are more divided.
* In both Taiwan and Singapore, ethnic and national identity plays a role in attitudes. In Taiwan, those who identify as Chinese and Taiwanese (rather than as only Taiwanese) tend to prioritize economic relations with China over the US and to have more favourable views of the superpower, among other differences. In Singapore, similar differences emerge between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Malay or Indians.
* Older adults are often more critical of China than younger ones—whether it comes to favourability of China, assessments of President Xi, evaluations of how well China has handled the Covid-19 pandemic or opinions about whether China respects the personal freedoms of its people. Older adults also tend to prefer economic ties with the US over China more than younger adults. Patterns are sometimes reversed in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, however, with older adults offering more positive evaluations of China on some questions.

Xi Jinping, recently in a meeting with Chinese officials, said it was important for China to tell its story in a positive way. “It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends when it comes to international public opinion.”

He further elucidated that China must be open and confident, but also modest and humble in its communication with the world. “China wants nothing but the Chinese people’s happiness and good fortune.”

Xi Jinping’s popularity is diminishing globally. China, however, people still favour, because of its economic strengths, though with a bit of scepticism.

The people of China are not the problem for nations globally. Xi Jinping and his dictatorial agenda in China and outside of China is a grave concern.

 

(The article was first written by Savio Rodrigues on The Sunday Guardian)

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