The world is a dangerous place in the eyes of many people in most of the nations surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2016. Not so the Chinese. They are relatively unconcerned about a range of global threats, with one notable exception.
Fully 45% of Chinese see U.S. power and influence as posing a major threat to their country. Such concern is up from 39% in 2013. Only the Japanese (52%) express more apprehension about the international challenge posed by the United States. In contrast, a quarter of Europeans (a median of findings from 10 EU members) express unease about the threat posed by the U.S.
The second-highest international concern of the Chinese is global economic instability: 35% see it as a major threat. Chinese exports have slowed in recent years as the world economy has decelerated, which may give rise to such worry. But Chinese economic anxiety trails that in Europe (60%) and the U.S. (67%).
A similar share of Chinese, roughly a third (34%), voice the view that climate change poses a major threat to their nation. Despite the fact that China is the largest emitter annually of greenhouse gases in the world, the Chinese level of concern is the lowest in any of the countries surveyed. By comparison, 53% of both Americans and Indians say global warming is a major problem. The U.S. is the second-largest annual emitter of greenhouse gas and India is fourth.
Notably, just 15% of Chinese say the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS poses a major threat to China. This is the lowest level of concern by far when compared with Europe (76%) and the U.S. (80%). Even China’s Asian neighbors Japan (69%) and India (52%) are more worried about ISIS.
A conflicted view on global engagement
China has experienced a meteoric rise over the past decade. Its economy has nearly quadrupled in size, as has its defense spending. China’s growing presence on the global stage is well recognized by the Chinese public. Three-in-four believe their country plays a more important role in the world today compared with 10 years ago. In comparison, only 21% of Americans and 23% of Europeans believe their nation is more powerful. Just 10% of Chinese think China is less important today, compared with 46% of Americans and 37% of Europeans.
Despite their overwhelming confidence in their own country, roughly three-quarters (77%) of Chinese believe that their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. Such sentiment is unchanged in recent years. But it is notable that in 2002 just 64% of Chinese felt that their way of life needed sheltering. About eight-in-ten Chinese ages 50 and older (81%) see the need for such protection of the Chinese way of life, while roughly seven-in-ten Chinese ages 18 to 34 agree (72%).
Isolationist sentiment is difficult to define. But one measure is public desire that their nation should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their respective challenges. By this metric the Chinese are inward-looking, as are publics in most other nations surveyed. A majority of Chinese (56%) want Beijing to focus on China’s problems. Just 22% voice the view that their government should help others. This sentiment is largely unchanged from 2011, the last time this question was asked. In comparison, 37% of Americans and 40% of Europeans say their country should help others with their problems.
Exports account for around a fifth (22.4%) of China’s economy. This is roughly double what it was in 1990, but down sharply from the 35.7% share in 2006. Despite this roller coaster ride, six-in-ten Chinese believe that China’s involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it provides the country with new markets and opportunities for growth. Just 23% think it’s a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs.
China is classified by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income developing country. Although largely an exporter, it now imports a great deal from other developing nations, especially commodities. While primarily a recipient of foreign investment, it is a growing investor abroad. Once the recipient of large amounts of foreign aid, China is now an aid donor.
A majority (55%) of Chinese support importing more goods from developing countries, while 38% oppose such purchases. This compares with a median of 64% of Europeans and 52% of Americans who back more imports from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Two-thirds of Chinese favor increasing Chinese companies’ investment in developing nations and 24% oppose it. Roughly three-quarters of Europeans (76%) back their firms investing more in poorer countries, while about half of Americans (52%) support such efforts.
About six-in-ten Chinese (62%) support increasing China’s foreign aid to developing nations, while 32% are against such spending. This share in favor of foreign assistance is higher than the 53% of Europeans and only 48% of Americans who back foreign aid to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In addition to the 15% who view ISIS as a major threat to their country, 32% of Chinese see the Islamic militant group as a minor threat. And the Chinese are divided over the use of force to counter such international terrorist challenges. Just 44% believe that overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world. At the same time, 40% hold the view that relying too much on such force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism. Chinese views mirror those of Americans, who are split down the middle on this issue: 47% of Americans favor the use of force, 47% worry it will only spawn more terrorists. And Chinese opinion differs from that in Europe, where a median of 41% say overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism, while 53% fear it will only lead to more terrorism.
Mixed views of the U.S. and other nations
As China plays a more prominent role in the global arena, Chinese views of other players on that stage take on greater importance. In a world increasingly dominated by two superpowers, none of those relationships is more important than the rapport with the United States.
In recent years, Chinese views of America have seesawed. Today half the Chinese have a favorable opinion of the United States and 44% have an unfavorable view. In 2014, 44% had a positive assessment of the U.S.; in 2014, 50%; and in 2013, 40%.
For some time there has been a large generation gap in Chinese attitudes toward America. In 2016, 60% of those ages 18 to 34 have a favorable view, but only 35% of those ages 50 and older share that opinion. There is also an education divide: 63% of those with a secondary school education or more have a positive opinion of the U.S., compared with 40% of those with less than a secondary education.
While the Chinese overwhelmingly believe their country is a rising star in the international firmament, they are divided about the trajectory of the United States. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) think America plays a less important role in the world today compared with a decade ago, while 35% believe the U.S. plays a more important role. The Chinese are more likely than the median in Europe to say the U.S. is more important (21%) but also the Chinese are more likely to believe America is less important (32%). Notably, the Chinese are also more likely than Americans (21%) to say the U.S. is more important and less likely than Americans (46%) to have a pessimistic view of U.S. importance.
When it comes to which nation is preeminent in the global economy, the Chinese firmly believe it is the United States: 45% say America is the world’s leading economic power, just 29% cite China, 10% think it is the countries of the European Union and only 3% name Japan.
Nevertheless, the Chinese have their worries about the United States. Four-in-ten are concerned about U.S. military strength, 21% fret about American economic power and 19% are troubled by both. Just 14% say neither aspect of U.S. power concerns them.
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.
Chinese assessments of U.S. President Barack Obama have been volatile. Although today roughly half (52%) of the Chinese express trust in Obama, only a few years ago this was not the case. Greeted by majority approval when he first took office in 2009 (62%), Chinese confidence slipped to just 31% in 2013 – with 46% expressing little or no confidence in the U.S. leader. Since 2013, Chinese attitudes toward Obama have again turned more positive than negative.
Looking forward, the Chinese are divided about Democratic candidate for U.S. president Hillary Clinton. Roughly comparable shares of the public hold a favorable view of her (37%) and an unfavorable opinion (35%), while 28% voice no view. But the Democratic contender is better known and better liked in China than she was when she last ran for president in 2008. Then 24% saw her favorably, 34% unfavorably and 43% expressed no opinion about Clinton.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is less liked and less well known. Just 22% see him favorably, 40% unfavorably and 39% have no opinion.
With regard to some of their Asian neighbors, 55% of Chinese voice a favorable opinion of South Korea. Such sentiment has decreased slightly from 2006 (63%). But only 14% voice a favorable opinion of Japan, a view that is in line with the average of available public opinion data over the past decade. And just 26% hold a favorable view of India, with whom China has had numerous territorial disputes for more than a half century. Over the last decade Chinese opinion of India has drifted downward from 33% favorable in 2006.
Chinese views of some of their neighbors may also reflect public worries about potential conflicts with those nations. Nearly six-in-ten Chinese (59%) are concerned that territorial conflicts between China and neighboring countries could lead to military conflict. Such sentiment is largely unchanged from 2014.
China is a member of the United Nations Security Council, and more than half (54%) of Chinese have favorable views of the multilateral organization, while 33% see it unfavorably. Such sentiment represents a rebound in public support for the UN. In 2013, just 39% saw the institution positively. Chinese views on the UN represent a return to levels of Chinese support last seen in 2009, when 55% backed the UN.