Despite widespread talk of a rising China and an America in decline, the latest BBC World Service poll shows not just strong residual American soft power but actually an increase. At the same time, the data depict a China whose influence is viewed as more negative than positive in an increasing number of countries.
A year and a half after the election of President Barack Obama, views of the United States around the world have improved, according to the poll of about 30,000 adults interviewed either in person or by telephone in 28 countries who were asked to consider the influence of various countries as mostly positive or mostly negative.
The survey found that the U.S. is viewed positively on balance in 20 of the 28 countries surveyed, confirming a trend that was discernible two years ago.
Surveys in 2008 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project found signs that America’s global image was recovering after having plummeted following its decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
America is now viewed positively in 20 of the 28 countries, with an average of 46 percent saying the U.S. has a positive influence in the world, while 34 percent say that it has a negative influence. By contrast, China is viewed positively in 15 of those countries.
Ironically, while America’s image overseas is improving, a Pew Research Center survey shows that almost 80 percent of Americans say they don’t trust Washington, with public confidence in the federal government at one of the lowest points in a half century.
Fifteen of the 28 countries polled by the BBC have been surveyed each year since 2005. They are Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.
In 2005, 38 percent of people in those countries regarded American influence as positive, but this number dropped to 28 percent in 2007. This year, America’s popularity has recovered and 40 percent of those polled see the U.S. influence in the world as positive.
But views of China have declined sharply. In 2005, 49 percent of people thought that China’s influence was mostly positive, 11 points higher than that of the U.S. However, China’s numbers have fallen, reaching 34 percent this year, trailing the U.S. by 6 points.
As China’s political, economic and military power have grown, global attention has focused on its influence and activities in Asia.
Public sentiment in the region is shifting dramatically. Japan has for many years had a strained relationship with China. While 59 percent of Japanese had a negative view of China in 2009, this number has now fallen dramatically to 38 percent.
This warming has taken place at a time when China has replaced the U.S. as Japan’s most important trading partner. Also, since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office last September, he has emphasized closer relations between Japan and Asia, in particular with China.
But Indians are moving in the other direction. In 2009, Indians leaned toward a positive view of China, 30 percent versus 24 percent, with many declining to state a view. Now, there are more Indians who view China negatively, 38 percent versus 30 percent who have a positive view.
South Koreans are going even further than Indians, with 61 percent viewing China negatively, compared to 50 percent in 2008.
Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesians view China less negatively than before, with 43 percent holding a positive view and 29 percent negative, compared to 37 percent negative previously. And in the Philippines, sentiment has shifted sharply, from 52 percent negative in 2009 to 55 percent positive today.
The official China Daily, responding to the BBC poll results, said public opinion was shaped by the Western media, which “are unsuitably seasoned with misunderstanding, misinterpretation or even bias and enmity.”
However, it concluded optimistically, “as mutual understanding deepens, public opinion will change.”
Public opinion is undoubtedly affected by the Western media. But this was true in previous years as well, when China’s image was much more positive. So there must be other reasons that account for the deterioration of China’s image, possibly including such events as the outbreaks of violence in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang last year and the way they were put down.
Public opinion, especially views on foreign countries, may be fickle and subject to personal whims but they cannot be dismissed out of hand because they do provide an indication of how well governments are perceived to be doing, not by their own people but by international opinion.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.
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