A poll conducted Wednesday last week by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that an overwhelming majority (74%) of UK respondents believe the Chinese Government covered up or hid the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus when the virus first emerged. Even though this figure is lower among younger age groups (64% of those aged 18-24, for example) and among those who voted Labour (66%) or Liberal Democrat (67%) in the 2019 General Election, at least two thirds of UK respondents in every age and political party category believe the Chinese Government engaged in a cover-up.
The perception of the British public echoes similar sentiments in continental Europe. Polls conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies from the 22nd to the 25th of May found that 70% of German respondents believe the Chinese Government hid the seriousness of the coronavirus threat initially, alongside 74% of Italian and 69% of French respondents.
Overall, there appears to be broad agreement in Western Europe that China failed to communicate transparently with other countries about the magnitude of the threat, thus hampering their ability to prepare effectively for the crisis. Indeed, it was reported in early May that US officials believe the Chinese Government hid the severity of the outbreak from the rest of the world so that they could stock up on medical supplies.
While there is a broad consensus that China is at least partly responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, only 30% of UK respondents said the UK Government has been “about right” in the severity of its stance towards China over the pandemic. Instead, 42% of respondents believe the UK Government has not been aggressive enough, a figure that is much higher among 2019 Conservative voters (55%) than among those who voted for Labour (29%).
Whereas only 5% of UK respondents believe the UK Government’s stance towards China has been too aggressive, 36% believe that the Trump administration’s stance has instead been too aggressive. The fact that 64% of respondents do not believe Trump’s stance towards China is too aggressive suggests the UK public has an appetite for its government to adopt a stance towards China that is at least as aggressive as Trump’s in the United States. Indeed, even among 2019 Labour voters, 34% of them consider that Trump’s response has been either “about right” or not aggressive enough.
However, on 29 May, two days after the poll was conducted, the UK Government announced it would grant British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders from Hong Kong additional rights to enter and remain in the UK, potentially creating a path to full citizenship. A day later, on 30 May, it was announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a review (and potential termination) of Huawei’s contract in supplying 5G networks in the UK, indicating a tougher stance towards China. It remains to be seen whether these additional measures will have an impact on the public’s perception of the UK Government stance towards China.
Similarly, the majority of the public in Germany, Italy, and France would like their national governments to take a stronger stance against China. When asked whether Germany should join Australia, the UK, and the US in demanding an independent team of investigators be allowed to investigate the origins of the pandemic on the ground in China, 59% of German respondents agreed that the German Government should join these nations in calling for the independent investigation.
Compared to Germany, this figure was somewhat lower in Italy (51%), but higher in France (62%). This slight difference could be as a result of the China having donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to Italy in a very publicised fashion, which some observers believe is part of Chinese geopolitical strategy to build up soft power in Italy. However, more than half of Italian respondents would still like their government to support calls for an independent investigation.
Among UK respondents who indicated they think China should be held responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, there was broad support for the independent investigation and for China closing all its wet markets (69% and 61%, respectively). However, support was mixed for asking China to pay reparations to each country affected by the virus, with 51% of respondents supporting this measure, including 48% of 2019 Labour voters.
On the other hand, there was much less support for measures such as implementing a longer-term travel ban on travellers from China (34%), imposing economic sanctions on certain Chinese firms (28%), or not allowing Chinese businesses to own property abroad (18%). Support for these measures was considerably lower among younger people and 2019 Liberal Democrat voters, but even among those respondents who voted Conservative no more than a third expressed support for these measures.
Although these numbers show that the UK public does want China to assume responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic itself, the low levels of support for longer-term travel bans or bans on property ownerships suggest that this has less to do with anti-China sentiment and instead is a product of the great majority of the population believing that China is responsible for the pandemic and hid its true scale and dangers in the early days.
In the continent, levels of support for China being financially liable to countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic were similar to UK levels. In Germany, the rate of support among respondents was 41%, compared to 52% in Italy and 49% in France.
Interestingly, the level of support in Germany for China having financial liability were higher among younger and middle-aged groups (for example, it had 49% support in the 35-44 age group), and significantly lower among the older age groups (only 35% among those in the 65+ bracket). This could potentially be as a result of historical memory of the hardship of paying reparations among older Germans.
On the other hand, this was not the case in Italy and France, where support levels for this proposition hovered around the 50% mark for virtually all age groups, and where the highest rate of support for making China financially liable was among those who are middle-aged. This higher rate of support for reparations among the middle-aged could potentially be a reflection of them bearing the heaviest economic brunt and loss of income from the coronavirus crisis in Italy and France.
Across Germany, Italy, and France, support for making China financially liable for the coronavirus pandemic was highest among centre-right and right-wing parties. For example, in Germany 43% of respondents who voted for the ruling CDU in the 2017 Federal Election supported this measure, and so did 58% of AfD voters. On the other hand, only 34% of respondents who voted for The Greens supported reparations. In Italy, 73% of respondents who voted for Forza Italia in the 2018 General Election and 64% of those who voted for League (Lega) support the proposition, whereas only 40% of respondents who voted for the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) agreed. In France, 63% of respondents who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the Presidential Election in 2017 supported the measure, compared to only 35% of those who voted for Benoit Hamon from the Socialist Party.
Ultimately, the extent to which these preferences are enacted will depend not only on whether the centre-right parties are in power, but also on how their leaders choose to balance public opinion with their economic interdependence with China. Whereas in Germany the ruling CDU will need to strike a balance between being tough on China to appease its base but at the same time not harm the German-Chinese economic relationship, in Italy the opposition parties could potentially target the ruling centre-left coalition for not being tough enough in demanding reparations from China.
Although different remedies and reparations have varying levels of support across Western Europe, the majority of respondents in these four countries (UK, Germany, Italy, France) do place a degree of responsibility for the coronavirus crisis on China. This majority wants their national governments to call for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, and a significant number of them want China to pay financial reparations to countries that have been affected by coronavirus. It remains to be seen the extent to which these national governments will choose to respond to public opinion and take a tougher stance on China, or whether the prospect of Chinese economic assistance in the aftermath of the crisis might persuade them to adopt a muted tone.