Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and US President Barak Obama at the Sunnyland Summit in June 2013. Image credit: AP
An annual poll published this week by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project (PDF) includes for the first time year-on-year data on how sample populations in 34 countries view the Chinese government’s human rights record. When asked whether “the government of China respect[s] the personal rights of its people,” a majority or plurality of populations in 18 of the countries said “no.” In 21 countries, the percentage of negative responses increased over the last year.
Views of China’s human rights record are worst in Europe and the Americas. A staggering 91 percent of German respondents said the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people. In every Latin American country, with the exception of El Salvador, where views stayed the same, perceptions have soured. In South Africa, opinions of China’s human rights record have also worsened.
In contrast, perceptions of the Chinese government’s human rights record have held up well in the Middle East and Asia, with the notable exceptions of South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.
In the United States the percentage of people saying that the Chinese government does not respect the personal rights of the Chinese people rose seven percentage points to 78 percent. This shift may be contributing to a decline in China’s overall popularity. The Pew poll indicates that the percentage of Americans who hold a “favorable” view of China is at 35 percent, the lowest percentage since the poll was first taken in 2005. Meanwhile, “unfavorable” views are at an all-time high of 55 percent.
Among Republicans unfavorable views jump to 65 percent of respondents—a data point that may be significant if the GOP regains control of the Senate in November. Among Democrats and Independents, unfavorable views accounted for 53 and 51 percent of respondents, respectively.
Based on the poll data, this decline in popularity does not appear to be related to the economy, but may be related to other issues including China’s growing bellicosity. In 2014, Americans were less likely to see China’s economic strength as a threat. Forty-nine percent of Americans said that China’s growing economy was a “good thing” for the United States, compared with 37 percent who felt that way when the poll was last conducted in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of Americans who called China’s growing economy a “bad thing” fell to 42 percent in 2014 from 53 percent in 2011.
Source: Pew Research Center, 2005-2014. Chart compiled by Dui Hua.
In terms of military threats, two-thirds of American respondents expressed concern that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors could lead to military conflict, and nearly 20 percent of Americans named China as their country’s greatest threat, second only to Russia. One year after the Sunnylands Summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, only 28 percent of Americans have confidence in Xi’s ability to “do the right thing in world affairs,” versus 58 percent who have little or no confidence in the Chinese president.
The latest Pew survey was conducted among 48,643 individuals in 44 countries from March 17 to June 5, 2014. Only 34 countries were polled in both 2013 and 2014 on whether the Chinese government respects the personal rights of its people. The survey of 1,002 American adults was conducted from April 11 to May 10, 2014. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.