Independent public opinion surveys in China, particularly those that shed light on how the Chinese public views the world, are few and far between. In China, surveying the views of the public can be a sensitive task, given the declared mission of the Communist Party in what it calls ‘actively guiding public opinion’.
This is why a new survey of Chinese public opinion, carried out by researchers of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, is particularly invaluable. Adding relevance to the new survey is its timing. More than 3,000 Chinese respondents were asked for their views in March 2022, two weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The results may not be surprising, but are a clear indicator of how much China’s state policy, backed by state media that remain dominant in setting the discourse in the country, is able to shape public opinion in line with China’s foreign policy goals.
The survey found that Russia was by far the most positively viewed country, closely followed by Pakistan, which has been dubbed China’s “iron brother” in state propaganda. The U.S. was the most negatively viewed, followed by India and Japan. Australia was the seventh most negatively perceived of the 25 surveyed countries, leaving little doubt about how the Quad, which has recently become the target of government criticism, is seen by the public. Ahead of the Quad’s leaders meeting in Tokyo on May 24, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi sharpened his attacks on the grouping, describing it as a destabilising force that sought to contain China.
There are several interesting implications of the findings. The first is the clear impact of sustained state messaging on shaping views of the public. This is no doubt true in most countries to some degree, but in China, the public discourse is dominated by state media and there is shrinking space for a diversity of views.
Consider the popularity of Russia. Support for Russia has soared after the invasion of Ukraine, with a sustained state campaign aimed at blaming the U.S. for the crisis. Those criticising Russia’s actions have been given no space in the media. When a group of scholars issued a statement condemning Russian actions, it was promptly censored. Reports of Russian atrocities have been few and far between, while conspiracy theorists suggesting that the Russian army was not behind civilian deaths have been given free rein on Chinese social media that are usually quick to censor content that the state finds disagreeable.
To underline the effectiveness of state messaging within China, the most commonly associated word with the U.S., according to survey respondents, was “hegemon” — a point routinely made by official media.
The second key takeaway is the degree to which China’s diplomatic relationships impact opinion – more so than other factors. For instance, American and Japanese culture, from television shows to anime, have a wide footprint in China. There is no similar wide affinity for all things Russian.
Change since the Galwan Valley clash
This is borne out in the negative perceptions of India too. Despite difficult political relations, Chinese public opinion of India had been to some degree insulated from bilateral problems. India is still widely associated with Buddhism (with a widespread yet mistaken belief that Buddhism remains widely practiced) while Indian culture — from music and dance to yoga and Bollywood — remains popular. Diplomatic writings on India had tended to oscillate between portraying India as a possible partner and as a country that was being misled by the West. India was rarely portrayed as an adversary.
That has begun to change. While there is unfortunately no data to compare how perceptions have changed over time, the last two years have seen a transformative shift in state media coverage of India, coinciding with the Line of Actual Control (LAC) dispute and the Galwan Valley clash in the summer of 2020. This is a departure from decades of playing down the border and framing India-China problems as merely a result of Western machinations. Chinese military propaganda has begun to focus on India to a degree not seen since the 1962 war. The portrayal of India has shifted more closely to how Japan, whose occupation of China and atrocities such as the massacre in Nanjing remain regular subjects of coverage, is covered in the media.
The third takeaway is the impact of state messaging in shaping what the authors call “specific forms of attractiveness” of a country. Russia has now become a top desired location to visit while the U.S. was declared as among the least, along with India and Vietnam. This underlines the power of state messaging in emphasising China’s diplomatic interests as a dominant factor in shaping views of a country.
Toeing the official line?
Clearly, the survey responses closely mirrored China’s diplomatic priorities. There are two important caveats here. For one, respondents may have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge affinity for a country that is in the crosshairs of Chinese state media.
Secondly, these perceptions are not ossified. Here too, India is a case in point. Only three-four years ago, the “informal summits” that saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi travel to Wuhan in April 2018 and President Xi Jinping travel to Chennai in October 2019 received wall-to-wall coverage that portrayed India as a possible partner and presented a rosy picture of the future of India-China relations. Just over six months later, the LAC crisis erupted. The official discourse on India rapidly changed, and, as this survey suggests, so did public perceptions of India.