Environmental issues rather than foreign threats are perceived by Chinese as the biggest challenges facing their country today, according to a first-of-its-kind survey of Chinese attitudes about their country and its place in the world.

The survey, conducted by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, also found that 60 per cent of Chinese did not view India as a threat. The possibility of a nuclear weapons-armed Japan and the United States are viewed here as China’s two biggest foreign policy challenges; India ranks third.

The survey of 1,200 urban and rural Chinese has shed new light on how Chinese view their country’s rise and its most pressing global challenges. As with any surveys about a 1.3 billion-strong populace, the study’s findings cannot be assumed to represent mainstream views.

The survey engaged with randomly-selected Chinese from different demographic groups, from both urban and rural areas.

The difficulties of conducting independent polls in China, an exercise tightly restricted by the authorities, limited the Lowy Institutes exercise, with only 1,200 people being surveyed.

Underscoring the sensitivity with which such independent public opinion surveys are viewed by Chinese authorities, State media here refused to disseminate the survey’s findings on the grounds that it contained “politically-sensitive information,” said the Lowy Institute in a statement.

Andrew Shearer and Fergus Hanson, survey’s authors, said the decision pointed to “the insecurity of China’s authoritarian leadership and their determination to control the flow of information” and their “increasing sensitivity to public opinion”.

The most revealing finding of this rare independent insight into Chinese public opinion is that environmental issues were seen by the public as by far the biggest threat facing their country. Of those surveyed, 76 per cent said they viewed environmental problems, including climate change, as the single biggest challenge facing China.

Water and food security ranked next, viewed by 67 per cent as a serious threat.

China faces a growing pollution crisis in its cities and villages, most evident in a rapidly spreading water crisis. Half of the country’s 660 cities suffer from serious water shortages, while groundwater pollution afflicts 90 per cent of China’s cities.

Among the foreign policy challenges, the United States is viewed as the biggest threat to China’s rise. Half of those surveyed viewed the U.S. as a serious threat, with most suggesting the country might either seek to restrain China’s growing global influence or support separatist groups within China. The possibility of a nuclear weapons-armed Japan ranks as another concern, with only 51 per cent not viewing Japan as a threat.

How Chinese view India

India, surprisingly, is viewed considerably more favourably, with 60 per cent of those surveyed saying India did not pose a threat. Only 34 per cent viewed India as a threat, the rest were noncommittal.

This contradicts recently published surveys by China’s State-run — and often stridently nationalistic — media, which have often claimed that India was being increasingly viewed as a threat by the Chinese public on the back of recent tensions over the border dispute. Public opinion surveys regularly published by China’s State-controlled media are often taken with a pinch of salt by local journalists, who say even polls can be manipulated by armies of nationalistic netizens.

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