China’s image sinking fast

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — Public opinion surveys taken in the United States and other countries around the world show that China’s image has been badly dented in the wake of widespread reports of unsafe food, toxic toothpaste, dangerous toys and poisonous drugs.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 65 percent of Americans have little or no confidence that food imported from China is safe to eat. And a Zogby poll shows that 82 percent of Americans are concerned about buying goods from China, with nearly two-thirds saying they would be willing to take part in a boycott of Chinese goods until Beijing implements more stringent safety regulations.

The negative image of China is by no means limited to the quality of its exports. In a Pew Global Attitudes survey released in late June, the percentage of Americans with a favorable opinion of China dropped from 52 percent in May 2006 to 42 percent in May 2007.

The decline in China’s image is worldwide. In Western Europe, where opposition to China’s record on capital punishment — the country executes more people than the rest of the world combined — is widespread, the Pew poll shows that China’s favorability ratings dropped from 65 to 49 percent in Britain, 60 to 47 in France and 56 to 34 percent in Germany.

Other polls show that China’s favorability ratings are well under 50 percent in South Korea, Japan, India, Turkey and Lebanon. Moreover, the percentage of Russians who see China as an ally has dropped from 24 to 19 percent.

In South Korea, China’s policy of sending back North Korean refugees fleeing hunger and persecution is very unpopular, and China’s persecution of its Uighur minority — a Turkic people — has doubtless contributed to the erosion of China’s popularity in Turkey, a secular Muslim country.

Interestingly, respondents make a distinction between the Chinese people and their government. When asked if they had a favorable opinion of the Chinese people, 79 percent of Americans said yes. When asked about the Chinese government, 87 percent had an unfavorable view, according to a UPI/Zogby poll taken in May 2007.

As to whether China can be trusted to act responsibly in world affairs, a question asked by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 76 percent of the French said no, as did 61 percent of South Koreans and 58 percent of Americans.

That survey covered 18 countries, which account for 56 percent of the world’s population. In that survey, 38 percent said China can be trusted to act responsibly while 52 percent said the country can’t be trusted.

The picture is not entirely negative for China. The country enjoys considerable and growing popularity in Western and central Africa, in many countries of Latin America and in Indonesia and Pakistan.

The recent poll numbers have important implications for China far beyond the question of its future exports. China’s deteriorating image could put in jeopardy its plans for a successful Olympics. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll cited above asked Americans if they would be interested in visiting China to see the Games. Two-thirds said they had little or no interest.

There have been calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over the Darfur issue and human rights. Some China critics such as actress Mia Farrow are dubbing the Games the “Genocide Olympics.” While polls currently show little support for a boycott, this could change as China’s image continues to sink under a barrage of negative stories.

Interestingly, Americans in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll ranked “improving human rights” as the most important thing the Chinese government could do in the runup to the Olympics, ahead of implementing environmental policies or practicing fair trade. And in the May UPI/Zogby poll 58 percent of Americans supported using the Games to protest China’s human rights policies.

Possibly in an attempt to burnish its human rights image, China has reduced the number of executions in the country. It also issued a passport to Yang Jianli, a Tiananmen Square activist who was recently released after serving a five-year prison term. According to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, China will release Li Weihong, who was arrested during the spring 1989 demonstrations, in November following sentence reductions.

These decisions, however, are just a drop in the bucket, as arrests continue almost on a daily basis. China should honor its commitments to the International Olympics Committee and allow the media to operate freely — including the domestic media — and improve the overall human rights environment.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.