Self-reinforcing propaganda: A new poll shows people dislike China, but there’s a catch
A survey published in late July by the Pew Research Center showed that public opinion toward China has reached record lows in 24 countries, most prominently in high-income nations.
According to the views gathered from 27,000 adults, 67% of respondents have unfavorable views of the Asian country, while only 28% have favorable opinions. China observers in the West are blaming Beijing’s perceived threat and so-called ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, but these takes are painfully ironic.
For example, Isaac Stone Fish, the CEO of Strategy Risks, Barron’s columnist, CBS News contributor, and visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that “like it or not, support it or hate it, this [China being the biggest threat to the US] is our reality,” and that decision-makers need to “understand and discuss this.”
Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific Program, noted that the results of the survey “should be a wake up call for [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.” And Tony Nash, founder of the AI firm Complete Intelligence, added, “Wolf Warrior diplomacy is working, but not for China.”
US state-run media agency Voice of America (VOA) published a story by Taiwan-based freelance reporter William Yang which speculated that these numbers were “caused by the public’s perception of China as a threat to their economic interests and governance system, as well as the deteriorating human rights situation in China since Xi Jinping came to power.” The headline of this piece also describes Pew’s report as a “global survey,” which is inaccurate.
That last point is the most obvious criticism of the Pew report. The agency polled adults in 24 countries; there are 193 United Nations member states, which indicates that it does not show any serious global trend purely based on its methodology. There is also a strong selection bias for high-income countries and American allies. However, some middle-income and poorer countries were polled and the data reveals what many know to be true – the Global South largely has favorable views of China.
For example, the Pew survey found that countries such as Kenya (72%), Nigeria (80%) and Mexico (57%) hold favorable views of China, with India being an exception that has more negative views of China. Since poorer countries are the beneficiaries of bilateral cooperation with China, including on the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is natural that they would have a higher opinion of Beijing. Pew, however, mostly did not select countries with high-level strategic cooperation with Beijing.
As for the hot takes from China ‘experts’ in the West that we see fully on display, it is ironic because it’s these exact same folks that are principally to blame for negative perceptions of China in the Global North. In their mind, negative views of China happened spontaneously without any outside input (never mind the fact that China has shockingly low levels of soft influence in their countries compared to its vast economic power) or because of China’s alleged global wrongdoings. But whether out of ignorance or malintent, these people share a significant amount of blame.
For example, Christine Huang, a research associate at Pew Research Center who helped conduct the survey, told VOA in its report on the survey that major international events have impacted China’s perception in polled countries. She said that the agency “measured a substantial increase in unfavorable views of China in many high-income countries after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.” And much of this has been media-driven, including the mainstream platforming of the ‘lab-leak’ conspiracy theory (which I discussed in a recent RT column).
But aside from this opportunistic cynicism on Covid-19, there has been a steady downward trend fully in line with American foreign policy, e.g., after 2012 with former President Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, the Trump trade war, and whatever it is that the current administration of President Joe Biden is doing. The US national security state has exploited deep ideological biases in the media and is bankrolling countless think tanks, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs to churn out constant anti-China propaganda.
To give an anecdote of the systemic ideological biases in American media, the New York Times ran a story on how the recent summer heat wave in China had stalled hydroelectric power production and forced the country to fill in the gaps with coal.
The headline for that story was ‘Why Heat Waves Are Deepening China’s Addiction to Coal’. While the (overworked and well-meaning) China-based reporter Keith Bradsher may have not necessarily chosen the headline (journalists that actually write stories often do not pick their own headlines), his editor most likely did. But not only was this headline exaggerated, it is factually incorrect because it conflated short-term variation with structural trends.
In terms of the activity of NGOs and think tanks, just here in the Czech Republic, there is a regional consortium called China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE), which is partially funded by the CIA-linked US National Endowment Democracy (NED). The group works on “providing informed analysis on the rising influence of the People’s Republic of China within the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE),” which in practice amounts to regularly-published anti-China pieces that are often poorly researched and always ideologically biased.
Additionally, the Czech Republic’s most prominent think tank, the European Values Center for Security Policy, which is nudging Prague closer and closer to outright supporting Taiwan independence, received just over $163,000 from the US Agency for International Development in 2022, and an additional $12,000 from the US Embassy in Prague. (Thankfully, the group is experiencing financial problems and staff layoffs despite being bankrolled by Washington).
Our small republic is not unique in this aspect because every country in the American sphere of influence (and also on its periphery) has some mechanism by which Washington tries to exert ideological pressure. For example, you can read a paper on Serbia by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled ‘Becoming a Chinese Client State: The Case of Serbia’.
It recommends that a “specific US-EU education campaign should be organized and executed to expose the negative impacts of Chinese economic activities in Serbia using a variety of media tools,” including funding think tanks, academics, and journalists to push back against alleged ‘Chinese disinformation’. And this is in direct response to positive opinions of China in Serbia thanks to Beijing’s BRI and its aid during the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a definitive and ongoing battle for hearts and minds between China and the US, and so-called ‘China experts’ are the Americans’ foot soldiers whether they realize it or not. And there are only bound to be more systemic incentives for China hawks in the future considering members of the US Congress keep introducing legislation, like the Senate ‘Countering Chinese Propaganda Act’ or the House ‘Countering the PRC Malign Influence Fund Authorization Act’, which would see hundreds of millions spent on negative news coverage against China. Both of these bills have been absorbed into the House and Senate’s versions of the America COMPETES Act, which have passed in both chambers but are awaiting minor changes before becoming law.
On the other hand, it should be noted that China does not spend anywhere near this amount of money on superfluous propaganda and is instead focused on win-win cooperation on trade and infrastructure. It turns out that poorer countries that have been gutted by centuries of European and American exploitation directly benefit from investments in tangible assets, which China is more keen on providing these days as opposed to the West. Had Pew Research polled all 193 UN member states, doubtless this would have been reflected.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.