By Richard Wike, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Follow him on Twitter @RichardWike. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
It’s not easy being a superpower, and that’s something China is learning. A few years back, international headlines featured breathless accounts of China’s economic transformation and rave reviews of the Beijing Olympics. But today, news stories often portray a country battling over disputed territories overseas, while struggling at home with vexing issues such as pollution, corruption, and political dissent. China’s power is growing, but as it assumes a more prominent role on the world stage, its global reputation is beset by a host of challenges. Welcome to the travails of being one of the big boys on the block.
While China’s rise has been the subject of considerable debate among elites in recent years, ordinary citizens around the world have also taken note, and for many it’s a troubling development. Pew Research Center polling has shown that a growing number of people see China as the world’s leading economic power. Moreover, people not only see the economic balance of power shifting; many believe that in the long run, China will surpass the U.S. as the overall leading superpower. Across the 39 countries included in a spring 2013 Pew Research poll, a median of 47 percent say China has already replaced the U.S. as the leading superpower or will eventually do so. Just one third think China will never supplant the United States.
But, as the U.S. has often learned, power does not necessarily generate affection. More typically, it creates anxiety. In regions throughout the world, people worry about how a superpower will use its clout and how it will behave in the international arena. For instance, our polling has consistently found majorities in most countries saying the U.S. ignores their interests when making foreign policy decisions – this was true during the George W. Bush era and it remains largely true today.
Now, global publics believe China also wields its power in a self-interested manner. These views feed the perception that the People’s Republic has yet to become, in the words of former U.S. diplomat and World Bank President Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. In the eyes of many, China has benefited greatly from the current world order but contributes little to global public goods.
In recent years, Chinese strategists have emphasized the need for their country to develop “comprehensive” power that includes a variety of dimensions. China scholar David Lampton has described the “three faces of Chinese power” – might (military power), money (economic power), and minds (soft power, or in Lampton’s formulation, “ideational” power). On all three fronts, China is facing serious challenges in the arena of global public opinion.
The ups and downs of America’s image since 2001 illustrate the degree to which military power can affect a superpower’s image. The Iraq War and the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” provoked anti-Americanism in much of the world. And even though America’s image is more positive today, President Barack Obama’s drone policy is widely unpopular. In the new Pew Research survey, half or more in 31 of 39 nations disapprove of U.S. drone strikes against extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And, as its hard power capabilities increase, Beijing is also learning that military strength can have reputational downsides.
More than nine-in-ten Japanese and South Koreans say China’s increasing military might is a bad thing, a view also held by 71 percent of Australians and two thirds of Filipinos agree. Meanwhile, China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the South and East China seas are generating serious security concerns. Nine-in-ten Filipinos say territorial disputes with China are a big problem, as do 82 percent of Japanese, three quarters of South Koreans, and 62 percent of Indonesians.
Meanwhile, although China’s prolonged period of economic growth is impressive, its economic power gets mixed reviews across the globe. China’s economic influence is generally viewed positively in Latin America and Africa, but there are reservations in many Western nations, particularly the United States. For example, a poll we conducted last year in collaboration with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found widespread worries about an economic threat from China. Big majorities described the amount of U.S. debt held by China, job losses to China, and the trade deficit with China as very serious problems.
At the same time, Chinese soft power has limited appeal. China has drawn admiration in many quarters for lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. And our polling also shows that China’s technological and scientific advances are respected in much of Latin America and Africa, two regions that have received significant Chinese investment over the last few years. But the U.S. still enjoys a soft power advantage in both regions. For example, American popular culture and ways of doing business are far more popular than their Chinese counterparts.
In his recent book, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, David Shambaugh details the considerable efforts Beijing has made to enhance the country’s soft power since Hu Jintao first declared it a national priority at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007. However, Shambaugh also highlights how ineffectual China’s public diplomacy efforts have been and concludes that “China possesses little soft power, if any, and is not a model for other nations to emulate.”
Survey findings also highlight the limitations of the Chinese political model. Across the nations polled by Pew Research, a median of only 36 percent say the Chinese government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens in contrast to the 70 percent who think Washington respects Americans’ personal liberties. Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Beijing’s public diplomacy may be that it doesn’t offer a political model that guarantees the democratic rights and institutions that people in regions across the world want.
In fact, many Chinese themselves seem interested in other models – in a 2012 Pew Research survey, half of Chinese said they liked American ideas about democracy, while just 29 percent said they disliked these ideas. The same poll revealed growing concerns about corruption, inequality, and food safety – a reminder that as Xi Jinping and the country’s new leadership look to shape international public opinion about China, they will also have to be concerned about public opinion at home. The still rather vague slogan, “Chinese Dream” has become the catchphrase of Xi’s presidency, but it’s not clear how appealing the dream will be to the Chinese public, let alone to publics around the world.