Expert Commentary

America and China: Global images of the world’s two largest economies

2013 Pew Research Center report on global attitudes toward China and America, and various trends among different regions.

In recent years, China has experienced a slowdown in its rapid economic growth, largely as a result of the global financial crisis that began in 2008. Some argue that even as the Chinese economy rebounds, there are still much-needed reforms for the country to ensure sustainable future expansion. (For additional stories on the economic challenges China faces, see the GlobalPost multi-part series “Broken China” as well as ongoing coverage from The Economist.) Still, in spite of this slowing growth, China’s economy — the world’s second largest — is still moving fast, with some observers predicting it will overtake the United States in the number one spot as early as 2017.

However, according to a July 2013 Pew Research Center report, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” China’s international perception has not matched its economic rise; it still trails behind the United States when it comes to a positive global image. The Pew report, part of the Global Attitudes Project, compares worldwide attitudes toward China and the United States on a number of issues, including how the government treats its own citizens as well as how the country interacts with other nations. Over two months, researchers conducted face-to-face and telephone surveys among 37,653 respondents in 39 countries.

Key findings from the report include:

  • In 28 of 38 nations, half or more of people surveyed express a favorable opinion of the United States, while China is viewed favorably in only 19 of 38 nations surveyed. China’s lowest rating comes from Japan, where only 5% express a positive view.
  • The United States gets its lowest favorability rating from Pakistan, which also offers the greatest difference in ratings for the two countries: only 11% of Pakistanis surveyed have favorable views of the United States, while 81% feel positive about China.
  • China’s attitudes toward the United States have become increasingly negative over the past three years: in 2010, 58% had a favorable opinion of America, compared with only 40% in 2013. Similarly, in 2011, 51% of Americans expressed favorable views toward China, but in 2013, this fell to 37%.
  • In only 11 of 39 surveyed countries did at least half of those surveyed believe that the Chinese government respects the individual freedoms of citizens. In contrast, majorities or pluralities in 37 of the polled countries believe the American government respects personal freedoms.
  • In the Middle East, 83% of Israelis have a favorable opinion of the United States, but persons Muslim-majority countries hold significantly less favorable opinions: only 16% of Egyptians and 14% of Jordanians viewed the U.S. favorably, with 76% of Palestinians considering the United States an enemy. Interestingly, the United States gets more favorable marks in the predominantly Muslim nations of Indonesia (61%), Malaysia (55%), and Senegal (81%).
  • China is viewed more favorably than the U.S. in the Middle East, getting the highest ratings from Lebanon (56%), Tunisia (63%), and the Palestinian Territories (47%).
  • In Africa and Latin America, achievements in science and technology are considered strong positive contributing factors to the international image for both China and America, with majorities in all countries polled admiring these scientific and technological advances. American music, movies and television are also popular in the regions, but “the spread of Chinese ideas and customs and Chinese cultural products — such as music, movies and television — lack majority appeal in both Africa and Latin America.”

Despite these higher image ratings for the United States, the researchers note, “in 23 of 39 nations, majorities or pluralities say China either already has replaced or eventually will replace the U.S. as the top superpower.” They also add that this view is more widely held today than it was in 2008.

Related reseach: Rosemary Foot from the University of Oxford and Andrew Walter from the London School of Economics explain in a 2013 paper, “Global Norms and Major State Behavior: The Cases of China and the United States,” that projecting public images in line with certain global norms is not insignificant: “Even for powerful states such as China and the United States, norms often serve as benchmarks or as framing devices around which domestic and international debate, interactions and negotiations revolve.” Foot’s and Walter’s study, published in the European Journal of International Relations, also suggests globalization may, paradoxically, reduce conformity with norms: “Globalization has also confronted established norms, rules and institutions with demands from a variety of new actors and has sometimes sharpened their perception of pervasive procedural and distributive illegitimacy in global governance.”

Keywords: Asia

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