Global Attitudes Have Yet To Digest China’s Bad News

he hears, perhaps that global opinion has yet to notice China’s economic and financial weakness. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)Getty Images

Public perceptions of China have remained remarkably constant over the past year. The man or woman on the street must have not paid much attention to the ugly financial and economic news pouring out of the Middle Kingdom. As that news gains greater currency, however, attitudes and opinions will have to change, likely suddenly.

The most complete picture available comes from a poll conducted annually by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. For years this group has asked people on both sides of the Atlantic about their attitudes toward and expectations on a raft of issues, including perceptions of China. This year’s survey included responses from people in 14 countries: the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Lithuania, and Romania. It is too bad that the survey does not include Asians, who would likely be more current on the situation in China and that country’s towering economic and financial problems. Still, the results give a good sense of prevailing opinion in the West and how it will have to change in coming months.

It is telling — despite the news of China’s troubles — how persistent is the once-common perception that China will soon overtake the United States in global influence and economic strength. Universally, respondents identified the United States as the nation with the greatest global influence presently. But respondents said they expect that within five years, China’s influence will just about rival that of America’s and that China will surpass the United States as the world’s most powerful economy. For years these common beliefs reflected a reasonable extrapolation of trends that had existed for some time. But the past couple of years have seen those trends interrupted and say something very different about how fast China can make the gains once widely expected. It is, of course, still possible for China to make such gains, but the debt overhang in China, the economic slowing, and the fall in exports, say something else. This picture suggests that global attitudes will likely change in the not-too-distant future, if not about the ultimate result, then about its timing.

It tells much about the backward-looking aspect of these expectations that respondents to this survey, especially in western Europe, feel more strongly about China’s coming economic and diplomatic dominance than they did last year. China’s recent economic troubles may not be enough to change perceptions entirely, but for people who are paying attention, the news would surely make them less, not more, confident of Chinese dominance. Either the western Europeans are dismissing the past year’s news from China out of hand, or they are simply ignorant of what has happened to that economy and its financial system. The latter explanation is likely the more accurate.

One thing that has changed very little in western attitudes and does fit reality is the negative view of Beijing’s intentions. Though respondents generally advocated cooperation between the West and China, a mere 23% of those surveyed across all 14 countries see China as an economic “partner,” whereas half of all respondents see China as either a “competitor” or a “rival.” (The balance of respondents had no opinion.)

The most negative opinions came out of the United States and western Europe, especially Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Indeed, the Europeans as a group are even more negative than the Americans. From this assessment, it is hardly surprising that people on both sides of the Atlantic advocate that their governments take a tougher line with Beijing.

Since the economic and financial problems evident today will surely plague China for some time to come, chances are good that the world at large – Asia first and then the West – will become more completely aware of the China’s severe challenges and have to change their opinions. Next year’s Marshall Fund survey will likely show a very different face than this year’s. Respondents will see China as less likely to gain global influence than now or as rapidly. At the same time, perceptions of China as less a partner and more a rival or competitor will become starker. Perceptions of Chinese weakness may however dull the conclusion that Beijing requires a harder line than nations are presently showing.

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