The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the public’s view of China in the UK and Europe, in large part due to the widespread belief that the Chinese Government covered up or hid the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus when the virus first emerged. This change in attitudes has been compounded by Beijing’s recent efforts to impose a national security law in Hong Kong that threatens the autonomy of the territory, prompting the UK Government to take action by increasing the rights to stay in the UK of Hong Kong British Overseas Nationals (BNOs), including a pathway to full British citizenship.
A poll conducted on Wednesday this week by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that 57% of the UK public considers China to be a threat to the UK and its interests, and 43% want the UK Government to seek more distant relations with China. Moreover, a poll conducted the previous week found that 61% of the UK public agrees with the statement that China should be held responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. The only question is—how?
To a considerable extent, the UK public may be deciding to act with its wallet: 49% of respondents have at least somewhat avoided purchasing goods made in China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including 16% who have fully avoided purchasing Chinese goods. Interestingly, this personal action has taken place across the political spectrum, with 17% of both 2019 Conservative and Labour voters reporting having fully avoided the purchase of Chinese goods since the coronavirus pandemic started, and a further 35% and 32% respectively reporting having somewhat avoided it.
It must be cautiously noted that the results of this question only cover what respondents themselves report doing. While some may prefer to say that they avoid purchasing Chinese goods even when they still are purchasing such goods, some respondents may not even be aware of whether the products they are purchasing are made in China. In a poll in Italy on the 5th of May, two-thirds of Italian respondents agreed with a statement suggesting that products ‘Made in Italy’ are primarily produced in China while only the final production is completed in Italy.
Genuine change in purchasing patterns will likely only be revealed in economic data to come. Nevertheless, the stated willingness of respondents to avoid goods produced in China is noteworthy. It shows a greater realisation that while one of the great attractions of Chinese-made goods has been their cheap prices, these goods may bear hidden costs that only reveal themselves over time.
In many Western countries, the availability of Chinese-made goods at lower prices has led to financial difficulties for many local industries, with many firms choosing to relocate their production to other countries where the minimum wage and cost of living is lower—including China. Recent development as the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s repressive behaviour of Hong Kong are now contributing to the UK public increasingly wanting to be less reliant on China—and they say they are willing to pay for it. Indeed, our poll this week found that 70% of respondents would be willing to pay more for products made in the UK if it meant the UK would be less reliant on China.
Once again, there was support across the political spectrum for this statement, with 65% and 67% of 2019 Conservative and Labour voters agreeing that they would be willing to pay more for UK-made products in order to reduce the UK’s reliance on China. Only 9% of respondents disagreed.
Likewise, 65% of respondents would approve of the UK Government setting tariffs for goods produced in China to incentivise local production of those goods in the UK. Yet again, there was support for these tariffs from respondents from all political backgrounds, with 72% of 2019 Conservative voters and 66% of Labour voters supporting these potential tariffs.
Although the UK public claims it is willing to reach deeper into its pockets in order to reduce the country’s dependence on China, the key question remains: how deep? Indeed, as the UK weathers the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government will have to make meaningful decisions over the extent to which it is willing to be aggressive in its relationship with China and, at the same time, potentially lose the concomitant investment by Chinese firms and nationals in the UK.
So far, one indication of the Government’s increasing willingness to make this sacrifice was its recent decision to review whether it will still allow Huawei to be involved in the construction of the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Our polling found that 48% of the public would approve of the Government revoking Huawei’s participation in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, and only would 15% oppose.
Respondents to one of our polls in February, before the coronavirus pandemic truly hit the United Kingdom, were already somewhat in disagreement with the Government’s original decision to move forward with the Huawei deal. While the Government remains hesitant, the public clearly indicates its wariness with anything related to China. If respondents to our polls are earnest in stating their willingness not to purchase goods produced in China, members of the public may soon, in effect, force the Government’s hand.