President Xi Jinping, who is expected to extend his rule over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at a major political event next month, remains a largely unpopular leader in the West and has overseen a sharp decline in positive views of China, too.
A data essay published by the Pew Research Center on Wednesday revealed major shifts in Western public opinion on China in the last 20 years, with Xi’s decade in power associated with the notable fall in reputation.
Many expect the CCP’s twice-a-decade national congress to allow Xi to remain in power for the longest time since China’s revolutionary founder Mao Zedong, who was party chairman—a position replaced by “general secretary” 40 years ago this month—between 1943 and 1976.
In the United States this year, 83 percent of Americans said they had no confidence in Xi “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”—an all-time high. A near-record 77 percent of Canadians felt similarly about the Chinese president, according to Pew’s polling.
Only 15 percent of U.S. adults said they had some or a lot of confidence in Xi, who faired marginally better than President Vladimir Putin of Russia, at 6 percent.
American distrust in China‘s leader has been consistently high in the last few years, a phenomenon best explained by the low ebb in relations between Washington and Beijing. In keeping with trends in other advanced economies in the West, Xi’s low popularity was already a feature long before he sided with the Kremlin against the U.S and NATO over the crisis in Ukraine.
Pew’s long-term data showed that, in the U.S., favorable and unfavorable views of China—both at roughly 40 percent in 2011—began to diverge in 2012, the year Xi became CCP general secretary and head of the party’s Central Military Commission, and then in 2013, when he also took the largely ceremonial title of president of China.
Opinions approached parity in 2017 when the election of former President Donald Trump appeared to bring warmer ties that included mutual state visits. But Beijing’s unpopularity rose sharply the following year when Trump began the U.S.-China trade war.
In 2018, “there were no partisan differences in views of China for the first time since 2008,” the center said.
Meanwhile, roughly one-quarter (26 percent) of U.S. adults became more negative toward China between 2020 and 2022, Pew said, attributing the shift to China’s poor handling of COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic, among other factors.
“Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party were about equally likely to become more negative (24 percent) and more positive (23 percent) toward China between 2020 and 2022,” Pew researcher Laura Silver said in her analysis.
“Republicans and GOP leaners, on the other hand, were about twice as likely to have turned more negative (27 percent) than positive (12 percent),” she said.
In 2022, 67 percent of U.S. adults saw China as a “major threat,” while 92 percent viewed the China-Russia relationship as a somewhat or very serious problem, ahead of Chinese involvement in U.S. politics (84 percent), China’s military power (85 percent), and China’s policies on human rights (82 percent).
Eighty percent of Canadians shared the U.S. view on China’s military capacities. Separately, 48 percent of Americans felt priority should be given to “limiting China’s power and influence” when asked the question last year.
Across the Atlantic and Pacific
In Europe, the Swedes (85 percent) and French (80 percent) led the most negative opinions of Xi this year. Among Europeans, the Chinese leader was viewed least negatively in Greece (57 percent) and Hungary (61 percent). One-third (33 percent) of Greek adults said they had some or a lot of confidence in Xi—the highest in Europe.
Among the advanced economies of the Asia-Pacific, U.S. allies Japan (89 percent), Australia (88 percent) and South Korea (87 percent) led the least favorable opinions of Xi. Singaporeans (69 percent) and Malaysians (62 percent) were most confident China’s president would do the right thing in global affairs.
Among 19 advanced economies, Pew found a median of 76 percent of publics had little or no confidence in Xi, versus 18 percent who did.
Assessments of China followed a similar trend among Europeans. The Dutch (75 percent) held the most unfavorable views of China this year, Greeks (50 percent) the least unfavorable.
Opinions about China’s military power were similar in Europe, and in the Asia-Pacific, a majority of all publics in Australia (90 percent), Japan (88 percent), South Korea (85 percent), Malaysia (62 percent) and Singapore (56 percent) all believed China’s military power was a problem.
Pew’s full data essay was compiled from nationally representative surveys conducted over the past 20 years in more than 60 countries.
“Responses showed that views of China’s government were not automatically conflated with views of China’s people. Some made sure to contrast their positive views of China’s people with their negative views of the country’s government,” the center said.
Pew’s survey comprising mostly advanced economies in the West may not be representative of wider international views of Xi and China, as was evident in results from Malaysia and Singapore, two countries with large ethnic Chinese populations.
Data from emerging economies in the global south—including in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa—painted a much different picture, one where opinions of Xi were largely divided, and where China was viewed as an important economic partner.
However, the center’s long-term findings will nonetheless trouble policymakers in Beijing. In the three decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre, public opinion in the West has been the primary target of Chinese public diplomacy and other influence campaigns.
Together, the high-income economies of North America and Europe account for more than half the world’s economic output—and all are among China’s top goods trading partners year-on-year.
Research indicates that the Chinese leadership’s quest for more global influence—soft power, for instance—ultimately seeks to advance its political legitimacy at home. The CCP bolsters regime security by preventing the Chinese public from being drawn to alternative political systems, such as democracies.
China has long viewed the West as having a monopoly on global discourse power, including the right to define universal concepts such as human rights and democracy.
The CCP’s 20th National Congress, which will begin on October 16, is expected to last around one week. Nearly 2,300 delegates, Xi among them, will select the party’s new Central Committee comprising roughly 200 members.
As soon as the gathering ends, the Central Committee will select from within itself a new 25-member Politburo and a seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, and approve Xi’s retention of the party’s top political and military posts.
The Central Committee is nominally responsible for these selections; in reality, the personnel choices are understood to be closely controlled by the Politburo Standing Committee, headed by Xi.
Xi’s presidential title will be renewed next March, when the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, sits for its annual session.
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