China’s (Un)popularity

Image of a globe.

Image by Christian Lue.

One of Xi Jinping’s signature initiatives is the idea of China’s renaissance—“the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” as he puts it. Part of that effort is to arouse the loyalty to China of overseas Chinese, especially the large Chinese populations in Southeast Asia. But one Chinese population where that appeal falls flat is among Chinese Americans.

What Asian Americans Think

China’s unpopularity with Chinese Americans, and for that matter all Asian Americans, is among the chief findings of the Pew Research poll above. All other Asian Americans have favorable opinions of their home country—that is, 50 percent or above. Not surprisingly, only 2 percent of Taiwanese Americans regard China favorably.

On average, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and China (in that order) rank most unfavorably with Asian Americans, whereas the US, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan rank highest in favorability.

There are some historically understandable anomalies here. Korean Americans are very unfavorable toward Japan (though Japanese Americans’ view of Korea is quite favorable); Filipino Americans have a very favorable regard for their home country, in contrast with all other Asian Americans; and Indian Americans are the only Asian Americans who have favorable views of India.

China’s Unpopularity Elsewhere

Another Pew poll also documents China’s unpopularity among 10 European countries and most countries in Asia. In all, views of China in 24 countries surveyed average 67 percent unfavorable to 28 percent favorable. China does a bit better in the few middle-income countries surveyed, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, and Mexico. In Asia, except for Indonesia, unfavorable ratings are very high in South Korea, Japan, Australia, and India. Those are all countries that have had specific confrontations with China and are not reliant on Chinese aid.

The polling suggests is that despite China’s very active diplomacy, especially via its major lending program (the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI), it remains suspect in the eyes of many people. They believe, according to the poll, that China is a self-interested power that interferes in other countries’ affairs. The US has also suffered from such criticism, but these days, China is outdoing the US when it comes to bullying.

So What?

Americans who regard China as the main threat might be inclined to sit back and relax on reading these polls. There is simply no basis for thinking that Chinese Americans, or any Asian Americans, are fronting for China. What the polls really do is reinforce a longstanding view that China, in Asia and elsewhere, is viewed with both awe and fear.

So far, fear doesn’t translate into rejection of China’s economic offerings. Countries that need economic aid find it hard to say no.

But the farther one gets from China, for example in Europe, the more fear is tending to predominate. Thus, Italy, with 58 percent unfavorable views of China, is about to jettison its participation in the BRI.

Other European Union countries are giving higher priority to China’s human rights performance, though they’re still happy to accept Chinese investments. The message for Chinese diplomats is that they had better tread carefully in trying to sell friendliness. It’s one thing to offer financial incentives to cooperate with China, quite another to insist—as some Chinese “wolf warrior” ambassadors have insisted—that the price of investments is silencing of criticism.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.