Mistrust of China Jumps to New Highs in Democratic Nations

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Distrust of China Jumps to New Highs in Democratic Nations

SYDNEY, Australia – Xi Jinping celebrates China's fight against coronavirus as a success. But in the United States and other affluent democracies, the pandemic has taken negative views about China to new heights, a poll released Tuesday found.

The diseases, deaths and disruptions caused by the coronavirus in these countries have increased the public's already strong distrust of China, where the virus emerged late last year, the results of the Pew Research Center poll showed.

"The unfavorable opinion has risen sharply over the past year," said the poll on China's views in 14 countries this year, including Japan, South Korea, Canada and Germany, Italy and other European countries. "Today a majority in each of the countries surveyed has an unfavorable opinion of China."

The results show the extent to which negative opinions about China have gained acceptance around the world in recent years. For China's leaders, such cautious attitudes could pose obstacles to the Communist Party's ambitions to expand Beijing's influence. Public mistrust could also make cooperation more difficult on issues where national interests are in harmony.

"Public opinion is a major stumbling block," said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who works as a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on public opinion and foreign policy. "We can see in both Australia and the United States that poor public opinion, for example, has contributed to governments being particularly vocal about China."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Tokyo on Tuesday to meet with his colleagues from Japan, Australia and India – all nations that had icy ties with China. Mr. Pompeo is often condemned by Chinese officials as an ideological warrior seeking to subdue Beijing.

In many western countries, the coronavirus crisis appears to have deepened public unease about China and Mr. Xi, China's proudly authoritarian leader. In the 14 countries surveyed, an average of 61 percent of respondents said China had responded poorly to the outbreak.

In the US, negative views about China rose 13 percentage points compared to a similar poll last year. Nearly three quarters of the 1,003 American respondents surveyed in June and July said they now have a somewhat or very poor view of China.

Suspicion of Mr. Xi's international intentions reached new highs in all of the countries examined except Japan and Spain. In the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and several Western European countries, around half of respondents said they had "no confidence at all" in Mr. Xi.

"I think this feeling is likely to continue because of the longer-term tendencies in China for increased repression," said Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government at Cornell University who studies Chinese foreign policy. "As long as the order of priorities is maintained, it will be difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to really reverse trends in overseas public opinion."

The rise in disapproving opinions about China has been greatest in Australia, which has been embroiled in diplomatic disputes with Beijing in recent months.

Australia has protested the detention of Cheng Lei, an Australian news anchor who works for Chinese state television, and Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-born Australian businessman and writer accused of espionage.

Recognition…Ng Han Guan / Associated Press

The number of Australian respondents with negative views on China increased by 24 percentage points compared to the previous year, so that 81 percent said they see China unfavorably. This was a drastic turnaround from 2017, when 64 percent of Australian respondents said they had a positive view of China.

"Until two years ago the Australian public saw China as an economic opportunity," said the Australian researcher Kassam. China's response to the outbreak only deepened skepticism in Australia, she said.

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

"I think we should get away from China as soon as possible. They are too strong and can just get away from us," said Edward Davis, a half-tired business lawyer. "We should do our best to deal with them, but we have to diversify too. "

At home, the Communist Party has sought to turn the coronavirus crisis into a political asset by scrupulously censoring criticism of their early missteps in the outbreak and highlighting their subsequent success in sharply reducing infections.

But overseas, the Chinese government's sometimes triumphant rhetoric and claims of selfless altruism have found their way into societies grappling with outbreaks or lockdowns during the crisis. European governments were irritated when China urged European officials to praise China for the medical supplies it was sending when Beijing was muted over the aid it provided during the early months of the pandemic. The fighting language Chinese officials use in international disputes has also angered many in Australia, Canada and other countries.

"Many Chinese seem to have forgotten the first scary weeks we experienced, but other countries haven't forgotten," Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said by phone. "It would be better if China had been more reserved and modest."

The Chinese government has resisted the negative sentiment, claiming it was unfairly disapproved by Western news outlets and politicians who want to shirk responsibility for mistreating the crisis.

The Pew poll typically covers many more countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where the public is often more optimistic about China. However, the pandemic made it impossible to organize safe and reliable in-person surveys, which limited the international scope of the survey, said Laura Silver, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. The survey was conducted over the phone and took about 15 minutes.

Public opinion in countries closely linked to Beijing is likely to remain favorable to China despite the pandemic, Ms. Kassam said. "I think China's handling of Covid has not so much changed minds as it has anchored existing perceptions."

Chinese leaders may find some comfort that many respondents to the Pew poll had an even worse view of the United States' handling of the pandemic. An average of 84 percent of respondents in the 14 countries said the US did a poor job with the coronavirus.

"In the end, this is more damaging to America than it is to China," said Professor Shen, the Shanghai scholar. "China cannot be used to explain the 210,000 Americans who died from it."

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