As the coronavirus pandemic enters its second wave in Europe and concerns remain over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the European public remains highly distrustful of China. Our latest research finds high levels of support for the notion that European countries have a responsibility to try to stop human rights abuses in China, with many respondents favouring their country seeking more distant relations with China. Despite a certain degree of agreement across Europe on some issues surrounding China, there were also substantial differences at the country level.
From the four countries polled, the Italian public has the most favourable view towards China, with a clear plurality (40%) of Italian respondents saying they view China as neither an ally nor a threat to Italy. Moreover, the proportion of Italian respondents who consider China an ally to their country (25%) is substantially higher than among British, French, and German respondents, of whom only 9% to 13% consider China to be an ally to their country. The warmer sentiments that Italian respondents expressed towards China could be a reflection of the significant propaganda efforts of the Chinese government in Italy, as well as the strong manufacturing trade links that exist between both countries. Politically, a greater proportion (30%) of those who voted for Lega Nord in 2018 consider China to be a threat than among those who voted for the Five Star Movement (16%) or for the Democratic Party (13%).
In recent months, Germany has been criticised for not taking a strong enough stance against China on human rights issues due to what many perceive to be Germany’s interest in maintaining strong commercial ties with China. Indeed, public sentiment towards China is largely ambiguous in Germany, with a strong plurality (45%) saying they view China as neither an ally nor a threat to Germany, followed by 29% who view it as a threat and 12% who view it as an ally. In Germany, there was a clear age divide: whereas 21% of 18-24-year-old German respondents consider China to be an ally, this was only the case with 6-7% of German respondents aged 45-64. There was a degree of consensus on China among the voters of Germany’s various political parties, with very similar proportions of 2017 CDU and SPD supporters viewing China as an ally, threat, or neither. The only exception is 2017 AfD voters, who are significantly more likely (38%) to view China as a threat to Germany than voters of other parties.
Meanwhile, British and French respondents were closely aligned in their views of China, which are more negative than those expressed by German and Italian respondents. Our poll found that a plurality of British (41%) and French (37%) respondents consider China to be a threat, followed closely by significant proportions who view China as neither an ally nor a threat (37% in Great Britain and 36% in France). Meanwhile, only 9% of British and 13% of French respondents consider China to be an ally to their country, a figure that is substantially lower than the 25% of Italian respondents who consider China to be an ally. As the only two European countries with nuclear weapons and permanent seats at the United Nations Security Council, Britain and France have generally pursued a more confrontational foreign policy than other European countries since the end of the Second World War, and the two countries cooperate closely on defence matters.
Perceptions in each country of whether China is an ally or threat correlate with the public’s view on whether closer or more distant relations with China should be sought. Clear pluralities of German (41%) and Italian (37%) respondents believe their government should maintain the current levels of relations with China, once again highlighting the economic importance of China to both of these European countries. On the other hand, the plurality of French respondents (30%) indicated that they want France to seek more distant relations with China. Meanwhile, the British public was somewhat divided on this question, with equal proportions saying Britain should seek more distant relations with China (32%) or maintain the current level of relations (32%).
Our poll found that 2019 Conservative voters are significantly more likely to favour the Government pursuing more distant relations with China (40%) than 2019 Labour voters (26%). Despite this political divide, it is important to note that British respondents were overall significantly less likely to favour closer relations with China (11%) than respondents in the three other European countries polled (16-19%). Indeed, our research in late July found high levels of support in Britain for the tougher stance the British Government adopted towards China over the issue of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
A key element of China’s economic and foreign policy is the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to develop China’s global trade links by land and sea, and is often paired with significant infrastructure investments in developing countries aimed at currying favour with local populations and building soft power. So far, China has invested more than $210bn into the scheme, while some estimate that total expenditure could reach $1.3 trillion by 2027. Despite its impact in the developing world, around two-thirds of respondents in in Britain (68%), France (72%), and Germany (63%) reported being completely unaware of the Belt and Road Initiative. Very limited proportions in the three countries (4-6%) claim to be significantly aware of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Italy was a notable exception, with just a third (33%) of Italian respondents saying they are completely unaware of the Belt and Road Initiative. Instead, a total of 58% of Italian respondents reported being somewhat or moderately aware of China’s Belt and Road initiative, a proportion that is much higher than in the three other countries polled (24-32% somewhat or moderately aware). Higher levels of awareness among Italians are most likely connected to Italy being the first major European country to formally join the Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, yet can also be partly explained by China’s propaganda efforts in the nation.
Among French and Italian respondents who are aware of the Belt and Road Initiative, clear pluralities think it does not pose a threat to Europe (40% and 43% respectively). German respondents were once again rather divided, with 36% of those who are aware of Belt and Road saying it does pose a threat to Europe, and 37% saying it does not. In Britain, a slight plurality of those who have heard of the initiative (38%) consider it to pose a threat, but a significant minority (35%) do not. Italy stood out again in this question, as only 24% of Italian respondents said they think that Belt and Road poses a threat to Europe, compared to 34-38% of British, French, and German respondents. A noticeably higher proportion of Italians answered “don’t know” to this question, thus highlighting the ambiguity of sentiment towards China in Italy.
Despite a significant degree of variation in how China is perceived in the four nations, there was a clear consensus that European countries have a responsibility to protest against, and try to stop, human rights abuses in China. Interestingly, Italian respondents were most likely to say their country has a responsibility to stop human rights abuses in China (62%), followed by British (54%) and French (50%) respondents. On the other hand, only a plurality of German respondents (47%) agreed that Germany has a responsibility to try to stop human rights abuses in China, highlighting the characteristically non-interventionist approach of German foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.
Low levels of trust in the Chinese Government are apparent in the high proportion of respondents (57-63%) across the four European countries who think the Chinese Government covered up the coronavirus outbreak. Across Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, only 16-23% consider that the Chinese Government warned the world about the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, these figures represent a reduction in the level of distrust in the Chinese Government compared to our research in June, which found that 69-74% of British, French, German, and Italian respondents thought China initially covered up or hid the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus. This reduction could be a reflection of the extended duration of the pandemic and of the more prolonged impact it has had on European countries than in China, thus prompting many Europeans to possibly forget that the virus first emerged in China.
When it comes to the West’s future relationship with China going forward, a majority of respondents in Germany (67%) and Italy (52%) and strong pluralities in Britain (47%) and France (47%) think that Joe Biden would be better than Donald Trump at negotiating the West’s future relationship with China. Across the four countries polled, only 13-21% thought that Donald Trump would be better than Joe Biden on this front, despite the incumbent President having emphasised toughness on China as a key electoral promise. These figures are consistent with previous research that has highlighted how Donald Trump is particularly unpopular in Europe.
Ultimately, the result of the Presidential Election in November will have a defining impact on the West’s relationship with China, as well as European-American relations and the future of NATO. As China continues to invest in the Belt and Road Initiative and attempts to build soft power around the world, European leaders will be faced with difficult decisions that will require them to balance their commitment to human rights (strongly backed by respondents across Europe) with the need to maintain profitable trade relations with China in the context of the economic crisis currently unfolding as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With the British Government having recently taken clear first steps to impose sanctions on regimes such as China and Belarus, it remains to be seen whether the member states of the European Union will follow in demanding that their leaders take a tougher stance against China.