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China has a global image problem

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A new report by the Pew Research Center finds that China has won global recognition as an economic superpower.

The report, based on a survey of public opinion in 14 major democracies, observes that, in those nations, a median of 48% of respondents identified China not just as a leading economy but the leading economy in the world. The U.S. finished a distant second; across the 14 nations, the median of those polled who picked the U.S. as the world’s top economy was just 35%.

One might think Pew’s discovery would be a source of pride in China, where leaders of the Communist Party have long vowed to restore their nation to its rightful place on the global stage and reverse a “Century of Humiliation.” But I doubt the Pew report will get much attention in China’s state-controlled press. Its headline conclusion is not flattering for Beijing.

Pew researchers found that a majority of respondents in all 14 of the democracies surveyed hold unfavorable views of China. Moreover, as Fortune‘s Eamon Barrett reported yesterday, “in nine of those countries—Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada—negative perceptions of China have surged to their highest levels since the Center began polling on the topic a decade ago.”

China’s global image problem isn’t new; hostility towards China has been rising steadily for years. What is new is the scope and scale of the backlash—and the speed with which it is growing.

Among Pew’s most notable findings is that, in many Western nations, negative views of China have increased dramatically over the past three years. Between 2017 and 2020, anti-China sentiment jumped from 37% to 74% in the United Kingdom; from 47% to 73% in the U.S.; from 40% to 73% in Canada; and from 53% to 71% in Germany.

China fares no better in Asia, where negative opinions of the nation rose from 32% to 81% in Australia and from 47% to 73% in South Korea. In Japan, the percentage of respondents who say they view China unfavorably has declined from its 2013 peak of 93%, but remains at 86%—the highest negative rating for China among the 14 major democracies.

What accounts for this stark decline in global trust in China? Pew researchers don’t attempt a definitive explanation. The report does note, however, that the free fall in China’s favorability ratings parallels a drop in in confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping, and this year may reflect global discontent with China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Assessments of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak are generally much more negative” than those given to other nations or global institutions like the World Health Organization or the European Union, the report observes. (Xi may take cold comfort in the fact that in the 13 democracies other than the U.S., he is viewed more favorably than President Donald Trump, a point Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris mentioned at the debate Wednesday night.)

Today’s Financial Times, meanwhile, features a detailed assessment of how China lost the hearts and minds of a narrower demographic: American elites. Washington correspondent Demetri Sevastopulo opens with a look at the case of Joe Biden who, as vice president, played host to Xi on his 2012 visit to the U.S. just before ascending to China’s presidency. By all accounts, Biden was charmed, and praised Xi for his willingness to break the mould of a traditional Communist Party leader.

“This is a guy who wants to feel it and taste it,” Biden said at the time. “He’s prepared to show another side of the Chinese leadership.”

Fast forward to 2020 and candidate Biden has changed his tune. “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic—with a small d—bone in his body,” he said in Februrary. “This is a guy who is a thug.”

Sevastopulo solicits comment from U.S. foreign policy experts across the political spectrum, who all describe a common disillusionment with China in general and Xi in particular.

“American elite and popular opinion has fundamentally changed,” former Obama administration White House Asia advisor Evan Medeiros says. “We have moved from balancing co-operation and competition, to competition and confrontation.”

The piece suggests that Biden, should he win in November, will stake out a China policy that is no less hawkish than that of his predecessor. Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, argues the key difference between how Trump and Biden deal with China, is that Biden will work more closely than Trump with “like-minded allies” to increase pressure on China.

That’s an unsettling prospect for Beijing, which fumed quietly Tuesday while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rallied support from the Quad countries, a group of close U.S. allies including Japan, India, and Australia, for creation of a security bulwark against Chinese aggression in Asia.

China Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaouhui last month denounced the grouping as “an anti-China front line, also known as a ‘mini-NATO‘” that “reflected the Cold War mentality of the US.”

This week’s Eastworld Spotlight features a conversation with Chad Bown, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute of Political Economics. His “U.S.-China phase one trade tracker” is widely regarded as the most authoritative scorecard of China’s progress in fulfilling terms of the deal it struck with the White House in January to increase purchases of U.S. goods. Chad also offers keen insights into possible changes to U.S. trade strategy in the event of a Biden victory.

More Eastworld news below!

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

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