Research conducted by Redfield and Wilton in July indicates that European countries are strikingly divided on their perceptions of China. In particular, French and German respondents were significantly more likely to view Beijing as a threat than Italian and Spanish respondents.
A clear majority of French (56%) and German (57%) respondents consider China as more of a threat than an ally, yet only a third (33%) of Italians and 36% of Spaniards hold this view.
Italians and Spaniards are generally less strongly opinionated regarding their views about China. A significant minority of Spanish (33%) and Italian (26%) respondents view China as neither as an ally nor a threat. 30% of Italians consider that China is more of an ally, in contrast to just 17% of Spaniards. Notably, these findings are consistent with research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies earlier this month, which indicated that there is a lack of any overarching view of China in Italy despite Beijing’s efforts to promote a positive image amid the coronavirus crisis through a so-called “propaganda war”.
In contrast, perceptions of China in France and Germany has changed significantly between June and July. A month ago, just 37% of French respondents and 31% of Germans participants considered China as a threat. It should be noted, however, that in July we phrased our question somewhat differently by asking respondents if they viewed China more of a threat than an ally to their country.
In France, mounting hostility towards China can be perceived through mutual retaliations pertaining to authorised flights travelling between the countries: The French Government has allegedly limited flights operated by Chinese airlines to France as a response to Beijing’s reluctance to increase flight frequencies from French airlines to China.
Across different European nations, respondents are strongly divided on their opinion about what approach to China their Government should adopt. Spaniards (36%) are most likely to favour their government seeking closer relations with Beijing, whilst a strong plurality (43%) of French respondents believe that Macron should seek more distant relations. A slight plurality (30%) of Italians favour their government maintaining the current level of relations and over a third (38%) of Germans answered that Merkel should seek more distant relations.
Although the French public increasingly believe that China is more of a threat, a large plurality (45%) of French respondents do not think that President Macron will be tough on China. While Angela Merkel has shown an ability to dominate European politics, 45% of Germans do not think the Chancellor will be tough on China. Among Spaniards, a clear majority (54%) consider that Prime Minister Sanchez will not be tough on China.
Despite the United Kingdom’s decision to ban Huawei’s technology in the country and change its extradition arrangements with Hong Kong, other European powers are continuing to focus on building strong relations with China. In particular, the German government has decided to avoid any confrontation with China, the country’s largest trading partner. When asked about possible sanctions against Beijing during a press conference earlier this month, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to answer, prompting many in the Bundestag – including potential successor Norbert Röttgen – to oppose her course of action. Whilst Merkel’s position reflects many of the views held by the German public back in June, she should be wary of shifting perceptions of China amongst Germans in July.
In comparison to a month ago, a greater proportion of respondents in all four countries are willing to pay more for products to be made in Europe if it means that their country would be less reliant on China. In Italy in particular, 60% of respondents answered that they would be willing to pay more in July against 48% in June.
Nonetheless, when asked to those who would be willing to pay more how much they would be willing to spend, we found that over half of respondents in all four countries would only be willing to pay between 0% and 10% more for EU-made goods than they pay for Chinese-made goods. German respondents were the most likely to spend slightly more with 38% answering that they would be willing to pay between 10% and 25% more.
Overall, our findings point to a lack of consensus amongst European respondents regarding their perceptions of China. The fact that Franco-German respondents are more likely to consider China as a threat (and favour more distant relations) than Italians or Spaniards may well be a result of the severity of the coronavirus situation in southern European countries. Indeed, while Brussels failed to provide assistance to Italy in the early days of the pandemic, Beijing sent medical supplies to Italy and Spain. At the same time, Italian and Spanish respondents may feel resentment towards the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic.