In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, many people began to question the reputation of the United States as the world’s leading economic power. As China’s economy continued to expand and the U.S. economy sputtered, overseas publics – especially in Europe – increasingly named China as the world’s top economic power.
However, more recently, as the U.S. economy has slowly grown and added jobs, and as China’s once astronomical growth rates have slowed, the percentage of Europeans naming the U.S. as the world’s top economy has increased, while the share naming China has declined.
Overall, attitudes toward China today tend to be either mixed or negative. Just 37% of Americans, for example, express a positive view of China. Americans are more worried about economic competition with China, but a growing number cite Beijing’s growing military power as their primary concern. For their part, most Chinese think the U.S. is trying to keep their nation from becoming an equal power.
In most countries U.S. is seen as top economy
Overall, people in the 16 nations polled tend to identify the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power, rather than China. However, Australia stands out as the one nation polled where at least half (52%) say China is the top economy in the world, compared with 32% who say it is the U.S.
In Europe, perceptions of American economic power have rebounded since 2012. For example, in 2012, just 13% of Germans said the U.S. was the top economy, while 62% named China; today, 34% say the U.S. and 30% say China. A similar trend is found in Japan.
Americans’ confidence in U.S. economic power has also bounced back. Just in the past year, the percentage of Americans saying their country is the world’s economic leader has increased from 46% to 54%. Only 34% currently believe China is the top economy.
Largely negative ratings for China
In only two nations – Greece and Australia – do half or more of those surveyed express a favorable opinion of China. Favorable views are least common in Japan, where just 11% see their East Asian neighbor and frequent rival in a positive light.
Only 37% of Americans give China a favorable rating, while 55% express a negative view. Majorities also see China negatively in Sweden, France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Favorable ratings for China have declined since last year in six of the 11 nations where trends are available, including France (down 17 percentage points), Spain (-13 points), India (-10 points), Italy (-8 points), the UK (-8 points) and Germany (-6 points).
Pew Research Center surveys in recent years have found an age gap in international attitudes toward China, and that remains true in this survey. In the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK, younger people are more likely to have a favorable opinion of China.
For instance, 42% of Spanish respondents ages 18 to 34 give China positive marks, compared with 32% of people ages 35 to 49 and just 17% of those 50 and older. Similarly, 47% of Americans ages 18 to 34 express a positive view, while just 36% of 35- to 49-year-olds and 30% of those 50 and older say the same.
American attitudes toward China also differ along partisan lines. About four-in-ten independents (40%) and Democrats (39%) say they have a favorable opinion of China, compared with only 27% of Republicans.
Few say Chinese government respects personal freedoms
Pew Research Center’s global surveys have consistently found that the Chinese government receives mainly poor marks on the issue of individual liberty, and that remains the case today. Large majorities in nearly all of the countries surveyed say the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people, including nine-in-ten or more in Sweden, Germany and France. Indians, meanwhile, are divided: 33% say Beijing does not respect personal freedoms, 27% say it does and 40% offer no opinion.
Americans increasingly worry about China’s military strength
When asked which concerns them more about China, its economic or military strength, Americans continue to emphasize economic might by a hefty 50% to 37% margin. However, worries about Chinese military prowess have risen by 9 percentage points since 2012.
In the U.S. today, Democrats are almost evenly split between concerns about China’s economy (46%) and its military (43%), while independents (54% economy, 33% military) and Republicans (52% economy, 34% military) worry more about China’s economic clout.
As for the Chinese public, anxieties about the U.S. focus more on America’s military might. Four-in-ten Chinese say this is their top concern, while just 21% point to America’s economic strength. A third of Chinese volunteer either both America’s military and economy (19%), or neither (14%).
Many Chinese are suspicious of American intentions regarding their country. About half (52%) believe the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming as powerful as America, compared with just 29% who say the U.S. accepts that China will eventually be an equal power.