Throughout the last decade, Poland has tried hard to strengthen its ties with China. It joined Beijing’s 17+1 format, endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative, and signed two agreements on strategic cooperation with China. As a result, just like many other Central and Eastern European countries, it was deemed by some a “Chinese Trojan horse” for its alleged closeness with Beijing and its seemingly growing dependence on Chinese capital.
For about three years, however, many have pointed to Poland’s ongoing recalibration of its China policy, coupled with fading enthusiasm toward Beijing among the general public. What we lacked was quantitative data to support that claim. The most recent report published by members of the Sinophone Borderlands project fills that gap: A representative survey compiled by Adrian Brona from the Jagiellonian University together with Richard Q. Turcsányi, Matej Šimalčík, Kristína Kironská, and Renáta Sedláková revealed remarkable trends when it comes to the Polish public’s attitudes toward China.
The survey’s findings support the claim that Poles have become increasingly skeptical when it comes to assessing China’s behavior, both domestically and internationally. 41.5 percent of respondents have negative or very negative feelings toward China, while 34 percent declare that their views worsened in the past three years. The country was also the fourth most disliked among Polish respondents.
If one was to speculate about the sources of this discontent, the perceived lack of tangible outcomes of cooperation and changing threat perceptions in the context of the Sino-American rivalry might be the dominant factors. China’s ratings also probably fell when a Chinese employee of Huawei was arrested in Warsaw in early 2019 on spying allegations, sparking fears of Beijing’s illegitimate inroads into Polish 5G infrastructure. Ongoing tensions between Beijing and Washington did not help boost Polish views of China. And China’s initial failure to handle the outbreak of COVID-19 added yet another layer of concern.
Strangely, almost half of the respondents declared their belief that COVID-19 was artificially made in a Chinese laboratory and spread internationally. Such a high number puts into question how representative this particular reply is of overall Polish opinions on this subject, given that 11.6 percent of respondents to the same question believed that “COVID-19 was brought to China by the US military.” At any rate, this may suggest a general lack of trust toward China and other global actors, especially Russia. The same trend might be also illustrated with data from another survey, which revealed that 74 percent of respondents would not agree to be vaccinated against the new coronavirus with a Chinese product.
And yet the above concerns did not correspond with respondents’ general views on economic cooperation with China. The average of their opinions – expressed through a 1-100 scale, where zero represented the most negative opinion and 100 the most positive – is somewhat above 50 when it comes to their assessment of Polish trade with China. The mood was similar with regard to Chinese investment and the Belt and Road Initiative (though only slightly above 50 in these two cases). Moreover, China is overall considered rather important for the “economic development of Poland.” But when it comes to aspects such as “China’s influence on democracy in other countries” or “Chinese military power” the average of opinions is predominantly negative.
Normative issues were also examined, with almost 70 percent of Polish respondents negatively assessing China’s human rights record. Numerous reports of forced labor and arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang coupled with the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong might have played a role in this context. Simultaneously, however, the survey’s results suggest that Chinese culture is seen by Poles as more attractive than American culture. This might, however, be the result of the orientalization of China, which seems to be often portrayed in Poland through its perceived “exoticism” – an outcome of a rather superficial understanding of its culture.
While this is of course but one survey, it is still the first wide and comprehensive poll on China to be conducted in Poland. Should we take its results as representative of wider trends, this would suggest there is a growing duality in how Europe perceives China (see also Sinophone Borderland’s surveys in other European countries). The track of perceptions forks into two directions: one is opinions on security-related issues, as well as normative ones, and here China’s role is growingly and undoubtedly seen as negative. The other fork is opinions on economic cooperation with China, where the overall mood does not appear to be as clearly negative, but it does not seem to be highly positive neither.
This, of course, is just a very general assumption and there are many nuances to consider. After all, the web of interdependencies connects economy and security in a number of ways. The issue of Chinese entities’ role in telecommunication (especially with regard to 5G networks) is apparently increasingly seen as a security issue, not just an economic one. In the case of this survey, for instance, the majority of respondents considered both “promotion of trade and investment” and “addressing cybersecurity” as priorities in Warsaw’s policy toward China.
This duality appears not just in surveys, but also in recent public governmental documents published in various parts of Europe. Take the U.K.’s recent strategy, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review.” It refers to China as a “systemic rival” and specifically mentions atrocities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. And yet the document announces that London will strive for “deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK” (even though it goes on to promise protection of sensitive technologies). It may be argued that this duality is expressed also in the European Union’s approach to China. The EU concluded its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, and then went on to impose sanctions on individuals from the country due to human rights violations in Xinjiang, both significant steps taken barely months apart.
But, as mentioned before, economics and security are intertwined. It is not just weapon systems and sensitive information that have both economic and security-related value. If a specific industry is crucial for the country’s economy, its collapse will affect the state’s security as well, even though it might have been previously seen as “security-neutral.” Thus, unfair practices and brutal competition may cause security concerns to be increasingly applied to new economic fields. It cannot be ruled out that in one possible future, what we now see as a growing duality of opinions on China will no longer be a division of separate aspects.