A global survey shows growing recognition of Beijing’s might, but without the soft power to back it up, it causes more fear than respect
By Timur Fomenko, a political analyst
The Pew Research Center recently published a comprehensive survey of 24 countries regarding their opinions of the US and China. These surveys have been a regular exercise, and are good for monitoring shifts in public opinion pertaining to geopolitical competition between the two countries.
Of course, the range of countries surveyed is relatively narrow, with almost all being in Europe, or allies of the US, except for Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and several countries in Latin America.
Naturally, apart from the latter few, such a selection of countries returns largely negative views of China and positive perceptions of the US, not least because of America’s own influence operations on those countries. However, this particular survey went deep beyond mere ‘approve/disapprove’ and explored topics such as who is perceived as the world’s largest economic power, who has the strongest military, and who has the best technological goods.
Here, the results were not as decisive as one might assume, with many questions resulting in an equilibrium or even putting China ahead. While the survey reveals that, naturally, Western nations do not approve of China in ideological or political terms, it does reveal how the perception of China’s global power and influence is growing in a way which provokes anxiety in Washington.
Many Western European nations increasingly see China as a larger economic and technological power than the US itself and near-equal on military terms. However, one challenge for China, remarkably highlighted by the survey, is that it continues to trail behind the US on soft power and cultural influence.
The US continues to have larger global popularity than China, including in countries that are favourable to China, because it occupies a monopoly over the global cultural and information landscape.
In all countries throughout the world, no matter what their political orientation may be, it is a fact of life that English is the default second language to learn, if it’s not already an official national language. Through Hollywood movies, television, and music, the US has unprecedented cultural power and, without hiding its nature as a brutal capitalist plutocracy with a history of violence, racism, and warmongering, has managed to present itself as a pinnacle of human aspiration and achievement – in other words, ‘the American Dream’.
Because of this, the US has been able to translate cultural power into discourse power, using the media landscape it dominates to export its ideology and promote its political and foreign policy objectives. China, as a country only rising to developed nation status and with the political structure of a communist state which increasingly restricts cultural expression, does not have this capability, and subsequently struggles to promote its narrative overseas, even in countries which have favourable dispositions towards it. This is made clear in the part of the survey which asks which country has the best culture and entertainment, with opinions leaning overwhelmingly in favour of the US.
Yet that has not stopped rising perceptions of China’s power. The country’s advance to become the world’s second largest economy, as well as becoming an increasingly sophisticated exporter of high-tech goods, cannot fail to leave a powerful impression regardless of any PR shortcomings. It is extraordinary that for all the technological achievements of the US, China is now seen as being ahead in this field almost across the board. According to the results, this is a view endorsed by a majority of the public even in the most devout allies of the US, including Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden.
There were of course some holdouts, with South Korea, Japan, and Israel being strongly insistent on American tech primacy, largely because they themselves are high-tech countries that lean on the US for geopolitical reasons to sustain their own advantages.
Similarly, in military terms, with the exceptions of the former, most US allies also see Washington and Beijing as near equal. For example, in the UK, opinions lean in America’s favour by a mere 4%, and in Germany by just 1%. This subsequently demonstrates how public opinion has grown to incorporate China as a superpower. However, considering the favourability ratings mentioned above, the issue Beijing faces is that it is seen as a superpower which is feared rather than embraced.
We see from the survey that for countries in Africa and Latin America, such as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, the populations of these countries are perfectly comfortable with China’s rise, they are not antagonistic to either country, yet for the West and those close to the US, this is undoubtedly perceived as a strategic challenge. There is an underlying fear that the rise of China will deplete the advantages the West has held for centuries, which means Beijing’s ultimate strategic objective must be to reassure those countries it is not in fact a threat to them, and thus succeed in the field of soft power.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.