Monday, February 9, 2009

Olympics Six Months On: No Lift for China’s Image

Six months after the dazzling ceremony that opened the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the first post-Games poll of international opinion toward China has been released by the BBC World Service. The results indicate that China’s image has worsened over the past year among most countries polled. The release of the poll coincides with the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China’s human rights record this week at the United Nations in Geneva.

According to the BBC poll of views in 21 countries released on February 6 this year, the percentage of people outside China who think the country exerts a positive influence in the world has slipped six percentage points to 39 percent from 45 percent a year earlier. Forty percent think China exerts a negative influence, up from 32 percent in 2008. Last year, 16 countries had a predominantly positive view of China and five held a negative view. In the most recent poll, 10 countries have a negative view and 10 countries have a positive view.

The most recent poll indicates a modest improvement in the United States’ image since the low point recorded in late 2006, when only 30 percent of those polled outside the United States thought that the country wielded a positive influence. Those who have a positive view of the United States now account for 40 percent of those polled, while those who hold a negative view stand at 43 percent—a decrease from 51 percent in late 2006. The most recent poll was conducted after the November 2008 election of the first black US president, who campaigned on a platform of taking steps to improve America’s battered image by closing Guantánamo’s detention center, outlawing torture of detainees, and promoting better relations with countries that have strained ties with the United States.

Over the past year, positive opinion toward China has dropped sharply in Europe and in parts of Asia (including in the Philippines, where China’s negatives rose from 30 percent to 52 percent) and the Muslim world (with double-digit drops in positive ratings recorded in Egypt, Indonesia, and Turkey). It has remained negative in the United States and Canada, but has improved in Latin America and Africa. Opinion toward China in Russia remains positive. In sharp contrast to international opinion, more and more Chinese—92 percent in the most recent poll—believe that China exerts a positive influence in the world.

The recent poll reveals views of China from eight of the 12 top medal-winning countries at the 2008 Olympic Games. Excluding responses from China, an average of 52 percent of those polled among the top medal winners felt that China exerts a negative influence—up from 44 percent a year ago—and the percentage of those who think that China has a positive influence dropped to 28 percent from 37 percent. Among audiences likely to have watched the Games, China’s image appears to have deteriorated.

Opinion toward China suffered some of its biggest losses in countries that hosted a leg of the around-the-world torch run. Positive views of China dropped to 39 percent from 48 percent in Great Britain, and negative views rose to an astonishing 70 percent in France (up from 46 percent a year ago). In Turkey, where sympathy for the Uyghur people is high, 64 percent now have a negative view compared to a mere 18 percent who see China in a positive light. In Australia, where a year ago 60 percent of the population felt that China exerted a positive influence, the number which does so now has dropped to 47 percent. The Japanese already had a very negative opinion of China’s role in the world, but even here the country’s positive numbers dropped from 12 percent in the 2008 report to 8 percent in this year’s report.

This week in Geneva China’s human rights record is being examined by the UN’s Human Rights Council. The Chinese government will field many questions about its human rights record, but one question should be directed at to the Chinese people: Why do an increasing number of people around the world view China so negatively, even after the hard-won triumph of the Summer Olympics, the outpouring of international support after the Sichuan earthquake in May and the realization that China’s economy and foreign exchange reserves are vital to repairing the damaged world economy?

A principal reason is doubtless the perception that the human rights situation in China is worsening, with reports of a sharp increase in arrests for political crimes, tightened controls over expression on the Internet, increased repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, and continued support for some of the world’s worst rights abusers in Sudan, Myanmar, and North Korea. As the United States and others have learned the hard way, the way power treats people, at home and abroad, counts heavily in the court of public opinion.

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