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Chinese People Think China Is Popular Overseas. Americans Disagree.

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Chinese People Think China Is Popular Overseas. Americans Disagree.

The widening perception gap between the Chinese and Western publics points to long-term divergence.

Chinese People Think China Is Popular Overseas. Americans Disagree.
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The Carter Center-RIWI published a joint survey of Chinese public opinion earlier this month. The results reveal two significant findings – the first, is that the attitudes of the Chinese public (at least, its netizens) toward the West, specifically the United States, have considerably soured over recent years; the second, is that a vast majority of the Chinese population remains convinced that China’s international reputation is broadly, if not very, favorable.

These findings must be situated within the backdrop of two broader trends. The first concerns the worsening perceptions of China across vast swathes of the global community. A Gallup poll in February 2021 suggested that the percentage of Americans who viewed China as the United States’ greatest enemy surged to 45 percent, doubling of the 2020 figures. Unfavorable views of China have climbed in countries ranging from Australia, the Netherlands, to the United Kingdom, with many expressing skepticism toward the Chinese leadership’s ability to “do the right thing” internationally.

This particular trend reflects the souring relations, escalating tensions, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric directed toward each other by Beijing and Washington. Yet this fact alone poses less of a cause for concern, arguably, than what could be termed a second-order perceptual misalignment – many amongst the Chinese population are increasingly convinced that China is regarded highly favorably internationally, notwithstanding the above poll results and data. The view that China offers a cogent, effective, and functional alternative to the Western liberal democratic model – to some extent grounded in Beijing’s swift and meticulous responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – has bolstered domestic convictions that the Chinese model of governance is on the rise, as liberal democracy gradually declines from its discursive zenith. The perception that China enjoys vast international prestige, then, goes hand-in-hand with the emotivist-normative judgment that the “China Model” (which, in practice, resembles a work-in-progress within academic and think-tank circles, yet is certainly portrayed as holistic rival to the “Western Way”) is here to stay – at least, within Chinese borders.

Making Sense of Perceptual Misalignment  

How do we make sense of the perceptual misalignment between how the Chinese public believe the country is perceived overseas, and the (arguably) tarnished reputation that the country possesses abroad?

There is a tempting tendency on the part of certain commentators to jump to the conclusion that the Chinese public – predictably and systemically – are “brainwashed” or “manipulated” by the ruling regime into delusional thought. Yet this is far too hasty, unnuanced, and uncharitable a characterization – the Chinese public are not lemmings. To posit that state engineering and manipulation of information is the primary factor in the perception gap is ill-backed-up by proof and evidence. Recent literature has suggested two significant trends that are worthy of our consideration, when reflecting upon China’s foreign policy, nationalism, and interactions between Beijing and the world at large.

First, the increasing heterogeneity of the Chinese public should render us skeptical of the view that the Chinese public are shaped wholly by homogenous forces – in a top-down manner – as envisioned by certain popular accounts. Cheng Li’s seminal work “Shanghai Middle Class: Reshaping U.S.-China Engagement” which points to the rise of an eclectic, open-minded, progressive middle class is equally skeptical of American hegemony and authoritarian encroachment. Shanghai epitomizes the cosmopolitan, 21st-century Chinese city, one in which passionate nationalism is moderated and enhanced by attraction to capitalist, open-market values. Kerry Brown’s “China in Five Cities” highlights the versatility and lucidity of Hong Kong and Xi’an citizens, who reimagine and explore their Chinese identities through the lenses of Westernized and historically embedded local cultures, respectively. These works highlight the fact that Chinese citizens – especially as compared with the pre-reform and opening era – are increasingly clued in and conjoined with the international pulse. To suggest that access to free, open internet remains impossible would be an anachronistic judgment – even despite the fact that many information resources remain, of course, de jure restricted. Returnees from overseas education and work have often profound and experience-informed insights into “the grass on the other side.” These points all remind us to be wary of essentialist explanations that deprive citizens – whether grassroots, entrepreneurial, or wealthy – of their agency.

Second, Chinese public discourses concerning foreign policy are shaped by a multitude of factors – and not all of them involve, or are steered exclusively by the top-level government (i.e. the State Council and its associates). Yu Jie’s recent briefing to Chatham House highlights the role played by provincial-level authorities, state-owned enterprises, and other associated local or provincial actors in shaping Chinese foreign policy. It is fair to say that the conjoined efforts of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party, the United Front Work Department, and the Ministry of State Security mean many Chinese citizens are vastly influenced by state ideology – yet it would be unfair to dismiss the room for provincial and local contestation over the precise boundaries of such ideologies and tenets.

Both points hopefully elucidate reasons why we should be skeptical of the “top-down imposition” story. The next step in our exploratory exercise, then, is to consider the possibility of alternative explanations at work here. I suggest that there are two possible explanations.

The first concerns the organic ascent in narratives centered around “self-strengthening,” a concept which offers both the normative justification, and what is widely viewed as the empirical evidence, for China’s “return” to its rightful place at the table internationally. Self-strengthening – drawing upon the imagery of national strength (hence the Chinese cybersphere’s invoking of “qiangguo” or “strong nation,” as a self-description) and defiance of “foreign enemies” – is taken as more than merely an aspirational goal; it is equally construed as what has been occurring over the past decades, and as what is likely to continue into the future decades. Many in the Chinese public – including the highly educated and affluent – are convinced that China has been working toward catching, and will soon overtake, the United States in raw economic and strategic/political terms. The perception that China enjoys prestige and celebration abroad, then, could be interpreted as an organic byproduct of such confidence – which could well be misplaced, but is by no means fabricated or imposed through the state apparatus alone.

The second point – one that Jude Blanchette makes in his incisive commentary on the poll results – is that “it’s important that those of us in ‘the West’ don’t assume that the world shares our narrative on Beijing.” To this, I would add that over the past five years, perceptions of China have not declined by much – and have plausibly improved – across countries and regions that are traditionally neglected by much of the international commentariat. A plurality or majority of populations across all Latin American and African states view China’s growing economy as a positive for their countries. Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, and Argentina, as of 2019, recorded double-digit increases in their populations’ positive ratings of China’s economic ascent. Few among these, if any, are traditional allies to the West – though they certainly cannot be easily reduced into being members of an ostensible “China” bloc. Hence, if we are to interpret the way the Chinese netizens view the international community as reflecting a particular segment of the world’s countries – namely, countries that have grown to be more receptive toward China – then the self-assessment scores would not, after all, be so outrageous. The obvious counterpoint/caveat here is this: We do not, as of now, know what a majority of Chinese netizens construe to be the international community; nor, indeed, do we have sufficient evidence to conclude that they do or do not care for the views of the amorphous “West” – much of this requires further appraisal and investigation.

So What Gives? What Now?

There are three upshots to draw from the above. First, Beijing needs to take somewhat seriously the above misalignment – not because they are losing international support from allies that remain steadfastly committed to China, but because the increasing bifurcation between the Chinese public’s understanding of the international community that matters, and the actual international community whose investment, capital, and interactions with China have been a primary engine promulgating its growth would only be to the detriment of the country’s population. Highlighting the hostile opprobrium from the West need not mean capitulating to them – indeed, there could well be self-interest-centered reasons for the ruling party and the population alike to rally around a more affirmative, productive variant of competitive nationalism, which would yield positive impetus for constructive, profound societal transformations. Yet in order for pragmatic policymakers and bureaucrats to acquire the political capital to push for moderated and flexible stances on matters where compromise can indeed be sought, the status quo has to been recognized as problematic.

Second, those who call for an explicit counteracting and reprobation directed toward Beijing’s state media and propaganda apparatus in order to transform “hearts and minds” on the ground in China are fundamentally mistaken. They make the convenient assumption that animosity toward the West is the product of party concoction and stimulation, as opposed to genuine grievances that Chinese citizens have come to cultivate toward what they identify as exclusionary, interventionist, and condescending rhetoric from their Western counterparts. The reductionist frame – that those who eschew the West and what they have to offer must therefore be brainwashed – is unhelpful, patronizing, and inconducive toward rehabilitating images of the United States or, indeed, the much-maligned Five Eyes, in China. If Washington is genuinely concerned about its image and soft power in China – which it should be – it would benefit from recognizing that painting Chinese citizens as an oppressed monolith that lacks access to free-flowing information, and are hence universally ignorant, cannot possibly serve anyone’s interests, barring those who enjoy infantalizing China in their politically charged rhetoric.

Third and finally, the China-watching community should move past focusing exclusively on the liberal West’s attitudes toward China. The perceptions, judgments, and attitudes of those residing in non-Western, or non-liberal democratic states, are equally important in gauging global opinion. If those in the “democratic” world are indeed seeking to revamp their image and render their brand of liberal democracy once again attractive to folks beyond their conventional sphere of influence, then it is high time to recognize that the grievances toward the Washington-led order are very much real. China may not provide a comprehensive alternative or panacea to it, but the West is in for a slog, as opposed to walkover, when it comes to regaining the hearts and minds of those alienated by decades of perceived neoliberalism and hawkish interventionism.

The widening perception gap between the Chinese and Western publics is alarming, but not surprising. The pandemic and the ensuing geopolitical tussles have merely amplified pre-existing tensions and long-standing resentment; the writing had always been on the wall. As China rises, it needs to learn the ropes of navigating a world that is not necessarily receptive toward its actions – especially when couched in the trenchant, absolutist rhetoric that has undergirded its recent statements. China must also be wary of conflating what it sees with the full reality – though this is a fact that I believe many in the bureaucratic and political system are well aware of. The perception gap between the Chinese public and the international community (at least significant segments of it) is widening, and this alone is a cause for concern.

Yet concurrently, those in the West who are seeking to engage China on dialogue and forthcoming exchanges must continue to do so. An isolated, cut-off, and alienated China is in the interest of neither the country’s 1.4 billion population, nor the world at large. Ameliorating conflicting interests and incentives requires a basic alignment of understanding. Aligning understanding, in turn, behoves tact and moderation.