Summary

As 2020 neared its end, the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research Center revealed that negative perceptions of China have risen markedly in several major Western countries over the past year. After the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan and the later ravaging of Europe and the US by the virus, the findings are not all that surprising. Yet unfavorable public opinion toward China in the West also reflects broader concerns over trade disputes, a crackdown on Hong Kong activists and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Negative views increased most in Australia, where 81% viewed China unfavorably – a 24% increase on last year. The US was not far behind: 73% had an unfavorable perception of China, up 13% on 2019 and 20% since Donald Trump was elected. In major European states including the UK and Germany, and in regional rivals Japan and South Korea, negative perceptions also rose. And across all 14 nations surveyed, 61% said China had done a “bad job” in handling COVID-19 and 78% expressed little or no confidence in Xi Jinping.

China has pushed back on criticism of its response to the initial outbreak, and having brought the virus under control domestically, is attempting to shift the narrative on COVID-19 to cast itself in a positive light. The supply of face masks and medical equipment abroad, and defence of its containment measures by an increasingly vocal band of “wolf warrior” diplomats, are a key part of this battle to influence opinion. Will these efforts be successful? And what else must Beijing do to rebuild its damaged global reputation?