By Richard Wike, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The views expressed are his own.
Tensions are mounting between China and its Asian neighbors, most recently over long-disputed territories in the South China and East China Seas. At the same time, the negative coverage that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received in state-run Chinese media during her trip to Beijing last month underscored ongoing differences between China and the U.S. on a host of issues. But tensions like these are not just apparent at the diplomatic level or in government propaganda. Now, as China prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the Chinese public is increasingly hostile toward rival nations, according to polling by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. This can only complicate Beijing’s relations with its neighbors and global rivals in the years ahead.
In particular, Chinese sentiment about the U.S. has cooled over the last few years. In 2010, 68 percent of Chinese characterized their country’s relationship with the U.S. as one of cooperation, while just 8 percent said it was one of hostility. Now, only 39 percent describe ties in terms of cooperation and 26 percent say they are hostile.
The Chinese were fairly pleased with President Barack Obama’s election, but since he took office his ratings in China have fallen dramatically. Of course, the People’s Republic is not alone in this regard – Obama’s approval has declined at least somewhat since he took office in most countries regularly surveyed by Pew. However, the drop off in China has been especially steep. In 2009, 62 percent of Chinese said they had a lot or some confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs, while just 23 percent had little or no confidence. Today, the Chinese public is almost evenly split – 38 percent express confidence; 41 percent lack confidence.
These shifts have been driven at least in part by opposition to the Obama administration’s policies. In 2009, a 57 percent majority in China approved of Obama’s international policies. Today, just 27 percent approve. Obama also receives poor marks for how he has handled global economic problems. And as the U.S. “rebalances” or “pivots” toward Asia, many Chinese are apprehensive about American intentions. According to a survey earlier this year by the Committee of 100 organization, a group that encourages constructive U.S.-China relations, 52 percent of Chinese believe the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming a great power.
But the U.S. isn’t the only country getting negative reviews from the Chinese. The current Pew Global Attitudes survey, which is based on a disproportionately urban sample in China, finds that opinions about India have also soured. Today, 39 percent describe China’s relationship with India as one of cooperation, down from 53 percent in 2010. The Chinese are also much more skeptical about whether economic growth in India is a good thing for China – in 2010, six in ten held this view, but only 44 percent do so now.
Views about Japan are even more negative. Roughly four-in-ten (41 percent) say the relationship with Japan is one of hostility, while just 30 percent describe it in terms of cooperation. Meanwhile, the EU, Pakistan, and Iran all also receive largely negative ratings from the Chinese public. Of all the countries and institutions respondents were asked to rate, Russia gets the highest marks. Still, less than half (48 percent) view Russia favorably.
However, it is important to note that public opinion can vary considerably across different segments of Chinese society. Typically, young, urban, well-educated, and higher-income Chinese express more positive views about other nations, and this is especially true regarding attitudes toward the U.S. For instance, these groups are much more likely to embrace key elements of American soft power, such as U.S. pop culture and American ways of doing business. And among those under age 30, urban residents, people with at least some college education, and those in the higher-income category, solid majorities say they like American ideas about democracy. Thus, even though democratic nations like the U.S., India, and Japan may not always be popular in this one-party state, many Chinese are attracted to the notion of a more open society.
The recent anti-Japanese protests in China illustrate how quickly Chinese public opinion can become an issue for the country’s foreign policy. When Xi Jinping and the new Chinese leadership take power in a few weeks, they will face a number of foreign policy challenges, and they will also face the challenge of managing public sentiments in a country where many sense growing antagonism with other key players on the world stage.