Why is the developed world increasingly negative towards China?

October 20, 2020 08:49
Photo: Reuters

China, the only major economy with positive growth this year, is apparently shocked to discover that the developed world, instead of admiring its rapid recovery, judges that it handled the coronavirus epidemic poorly and views it much more negatively now than in the past, a 14-country survey shows.

“Unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year,” the Pew Research Center reported of its survey. The 14 countries spanned the world, from Canada in the north to Australia in the south, including most of the world’s richest countries.

In each country, a majority holds an unfavorable opinion of China. And in nine – Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada – negative views have reached their highest points since Pew began polling on this topic more than a decade ago.

One explanation for China’s negative image, offered by the nationalistic tabloid Global Times, is “sour grapes.”

A more likely one is that China’s chickens have come home to roost. In January, after Wuhan was stricken, quite a few countries responded to China’s appeal for help by sending face masks and other supplies. Beijing asked them not to publicize their donations so that it would not lose face.

But not much later, the virus spread beyond China’s borders and countries that had sent aid to China themselves faced critical shortages. Beijing then relished the role of benefactor, sending – in many cases selling – needed supplies, some of which was defective.

China asked recipients to express public gratitude, grating on certain countries. But China was determined to be seen as a “responsible major country,” as the People’s Daily put it. This hypocritical attitude is a key reason for the negative sentiment toward China.

But the negative sentiment predates the coronavirus. There is another factor at work, and that has to do with something China is highly sensitive about: human rights.

It is no coincidence that 13 of the 14 countries – South Korea being the exception – were among those that harshly criticized China in the United Nations debate on human rights earlier this month.

Many have recent, first-hand experience of what China is like. In Australia, 81 percent now hold negative views, compared to 57 percent last year. China was angered by Australia’s proposal that the World Health Organization investigate the origin of the pandemic. Australians then learned that China was cutting back coal imports and, this weekend, cotton exports as well.

In Canada, the Chinese ambassador, Cong Peiwu, last week warned against granting asylum to Hong Kong activists. He said that if Canada cared about the 300,000 Canadian passport holders in the city, it should support a national security law imposed by Beijing. Cong denied he was making a threat.

The diplomat also defended China’s failure to allow consular visits for nine months to two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – despite a bilateral agreement stipulating monthly visits. He blamed the pandemic even though China announced in the late spring that it had the situation under control. And when a visit was finally allowed in October, it was held remotely. The two men are being held on espionage charges in a case widely seen as punishment of Canada for its arrest of a top Chinese executive at Huawei Technologies Co.

The United States, too, has received warnings from China. On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Beijing has told Washington that it might detain Americans in response to trials of Chinese military-affiliated scholars. This hostage threat will surely further tarnish China’s image overall, not just among developed countries.

The abduction of foreign nationals is an extension of what Beijing has done toward ethnic Chinese, despite the existence of laws, treaties and international boundaries. It was only five years ago that the world was shocked when it became known that booksellers, including a British and a Swedish citizen, had disappeared from Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively, and had later reappeared under custody in mainland China.

This type of behavior is what Chinese leaders publicly condemn. This Saturday, October 24, is United Nations Day. On this day six years ago, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for defending the international rule of law, rejecting what he called the law of the jungle, “where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.”

But words are not enough. China’s actions must match its words, whether in dealing with Canada, the United States, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

It’s not just popularity. China risks losing the trade and investment that it needs from the developed world. To be seen as a “responsible major country,” it must behave accordingly.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.