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Society & Culture

The Danger in Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Aug 30, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

A recent set of survey results published in late July by Pew Research Center highlighted a conclusion that I have previously discussed: the popular ratings of China amongst select segments of the world polled by the survey, have declined over the past few years. As the Pew report put it, “a median of 67% of adults express unfavorable views of [China], while 28% have a favorable opinion.” 

Or, to rephrase it more scientifically: the approval of China has declined amongst select members of countries that could best be described as belonging to the “Global South,” and the extent to which this is indicative of global attitudes on China remains to be established. 

There is oft a temptation to move from comments such as the above, to the conclusion that China’s declining favorability ratings - per these polls - are exerting a real toll on the country’s international presence. Indeed, there exists obvious levels of correlation in some cases: for instance, the Pew report flagged that 82% of the surveyed in Italy view China as likely to be interfering in the affairs of other countries; under Giorgia Meloni, Italy is seeking to leave the Belt and Road Initiative

Yet, as Political Science 101 often reminds us, correlation does not imply causation. Nor are polls the most accurate means of gauging actual political, military, or security influence. The argument that public disgruntlement and skepticism towards China was what prompted the incumbent right-wing Italian government’s souring on China, appears far too simplistic. Indeed, this assertion ignores the complex interplay between the U.S., NATO, and Italy that contributed towards Italy’s past few years of pivoting away from China. The war in Ukraine certainly did not help, either, when it comes to defusing concerns over Europe’s security in face of external threats - actual or perceived. 

In short, moving from poll results such as the above, or ones that are skewed in the opposite direction - i.e. suggesting overwhelming appreciation for China - to the conclusion that Chinese foreign policy “is/is not working,” is a tempting but fundamentally erroneous analytical approach: some may say, one would be seeing the trees whilst missing the forest. The results of any poll - even ones as reputable as Pew or Gallup - must be interpreted through the lenses of their particular contexts, their participants, and the nature of the questions posed. 

Take the aforementioned Pew poll, for instance. It is clear that efforts were made in including what the poll terms “middle-income countries” - e.g. India, Kenya, Mexico, and Nigeria. 

However, of the 24 countries where the survey was conducted, 16 countries are classified by the World Bank as “high-income countries” – that is two thirds of the countries included, whilst the percentage of high-income countries vis-à-vis all economies in the world is 83/217 = 38.2%. 

Ten out of the 24 countries are in Europe, five from Asia (with none from the Gulf), three from North America, three Africa, two South America, one Oceania. To put this into perspective, less than 10% of the world’s population lives in Europe. So there is something rather curious about the composition of the sample here. 

None of this is to say that the polls are wrong or uninformative. Nor does this entail our dismissing the very real practical challenges of conducting polls in authoritarian regimes with limited transparent information and inhibited debate. Yet it is to say that we need to be more vigilant of and scrutinise carefully the extent to which select results are reflective truly of the bigger picture of attitudes across the world. 

Indeed, it is apparent that China has much catching-up to do in improving its favorability and reception amongst countries whose majorities of citizens posit that China does not “contribute to peace and stability around the world.” Such improvements in perceptions cannot come through rigid, shoehorned propaganda that fails to adapt to or recognize the unique needs and concerns of the people on the ground. Policymakers in Beijing should take seriously, and tackle directly, criticisms of the usages of Chinese aid or loans by unsavoury decision-makers, who act with impunity and spend the funding on futile white elephant projects. Indeed, difficult lessons have been learnt.  

Yet the above does demonstrate the need for more precision and nuance when describing China’s international standing. A 2021 Afrobarometer survey of public opinions in 34 African countries, for instance, showed that 63% of Africans held positive assessments of the “economic and political influence of China in their country,” as compared with 60% for the United States, and 57% for the United Nations. This poll results, and what it says about African attitudes towards China, may be no more or less important than the Pew poll conducted above. How we interpret such results, and the conclusions we extrapolate from the findings, are what truly gives rise to potentially divergent value judgments - e.g. concerning which countries matter and which ones don’t in international geopolitics. 

Indeed, how the questions are written; what the ‘factors’ and ‘motivations’ are for the positive-negative perceptions of China; across what dimensions is China well-received or negatively perceived, and which of these dimensions matters the most in determining the shape and trajectory of global politics - these are all questions that merit unpacking, as opposed to the reductionist generalisation that holds China as popular or unpopular. In failing to think about the multitudes of trees that could populate the forest, we are inadvertently missing out on a veracious, full picture. A more comprehensive approach would feature a range of polls - addressed to audiences across different segments and spheres of the Global North and South, with questions clearly articulated (as with the Pew poll above) to account for different dimensions of preferences and dispreferences, approval and disapproval. 

Above all, it is vital that political scientists do not confuse popular opinions with what truly shapes and prompts foreign policy shifts, which are often more elite-steered than mass-driven. The argument that China’s foreign policy may be counterproductive in virtue of their alienating foreign publics, is at best only half-complete: it does not engage with the fact that elite opinion often matters more than public opinion in shaping state tradecraft and strategic decisions concerning alliance formation and conflict management. 

In his International Studies Quarterly article in 1997, Douglas Foyle posits that “elite beliefs regarding public opinions” could be an important intervening variable determining how public opinions bear on foreign policymaking processes and outcomes. More recently, Elizabeth Saunders offers a comprehensive review of the different mechanisms through which elites can “make and break” foreign policy, even in the absence of (initial) popular support. 

What is hitherto missing in analyses of global opinions on China, is a systematic and comparative effort in evaluating elite attitudes on China; the scarcity of literature here is no less thanks to the methodological difficulties of collecting data and - more importantly - identifying and pinpointing whom exactly the elite truly are across different countries. 

Would they be the wealthy capitalists and industrialists, the military junta leaders and soldiers, or the bureaucrats and politicians who lead the state apparatus? These are questions that merit more attention - indeed, perhaps more so than attempts to over-analyse the results from one or two selective, and limited, polls. The forest is always bigger than a single tree. 

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