All eyes are still on China where rising GDP is the envy of the world, but global perceptions of the North Asia giant have changed... and not for the better

23 October, 2020

The world is looking on at China with envy right now… but perhaps envy is not actually the right word to describe it. A strong-handed tactic to control COVID-19 has seen infection levels reduce to around a dozen daily and this month’s ‘Golden Week’ holiday has seen much of the country’s population travelling to see friends and family with no noticeable subsequent spike in infections.

China’s economic recovery is growing in momentum after being the first to suffer the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its economy expanded +4.9% in 3Q 2020 compared to a year ago, according to government statistics released this week. The pace was quicker than the +3.2% increase recorded in 2Q 2020 as China successfully navigated from the pandemic-fuelled recession that has gripped much of the globe.

The International Monetary Fund is forecasting China’s economic growth at +1.8% this year. A notable fall on previous years but remarkable that China will enter 2021 in a stronger position than it entered 2020 and a time that medical experts’ attention was first being brought to a potential pneumonia like virus spreading within the country’s regions. The often spoke about ‘V-shaped’ recovery that we all crave is a reality in China. Has China simply managed the pandemic well and the rest of the world badly, or is it a case of first in and first out and the rest of the world can expect something similar in the coming months?

It is hard to say, but what is clear is that Beijing’s reaction was brutally effective. The country’s economy had contracted by -6.8% in the first quarter of the year, its worst performance since at least the mid-1960s, before rebounding. The strong stance has set the path to where we are today and a position where retail spending has now rebounded to above pre-virus levels for the first time and factory output has risen, ironically boosted by demand for exports of masks and other medical supplies.

The envy of the economic rebound is just one of a number of factors that are now seeing negative perceptions of China increasing sharply among people in several Western countries – especially the UK and Australia, according to a recent survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre.

The ‘Unfavourable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries’ findings from discussions with over 14,000 respondents showed that in the 14 democratic countries with advanced economies the majority of people questioned had an unfavourable view of China.

In Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States negative views actually reached their highest points since it began polling on the topic more than a decade ago. The results are alarming, but not really a surprise given they come as China is engaged in multiple trade and diplomatic disputes.

The negative views of China increased most in Australia, where 81% now say they see the country unfavourably, up 24 percentage points since last year. In the UK, around three-quarters now see the country in a negative light – up 19 points. And, in the US, negative views of China have increased nearly 20 percentage points since President Donald Trump took office, rising 13 points since just last year.

Interestingly, the rise in unfavourable views is linked to widespread criticism over how China has handled the coronavirus pandemic. Across the 14 nations surveyed, a median of 61% say China has done a bad job dealing with the outbreak. This is many more than say the same of the way the COVID-19 pandemic was handled by their own country or by international organisations like the World Health Organization or the European Union. The research shows that only the US has more negative evaluations from the surveyed public, with a median of 84% saying the US has handled the coronavirus outbreak poorly.

Disapproval of how China has handled the COVID-19 pandemic also colours people’s confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to the research findings. A median of 78% say they have not too much or no confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs, including at least seven-in-ten in every country surveyed. But, even as concerns about President Xi rise, in most countries, more have faith in him than in President Trump.