A new global public opinion survey of people in 25 countries has revealed steep declines in support for China, although Beijing still is seen favorably by many in Africa, where it is vying for influence with Washington.
The survey by the Britain-based YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project was carried out between August and September this year, polling about 1,000 people in each country, including in three large African states: Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. The survey asked people about their opinions on China, the United States, and Taiwan.
The data showed that in the West, support for China has dropped considerably in the past four years. One reason for that could be the pandemic. When respondents were asked about where it originated, most people placed the blame for the outbreak of COVID-19 squarely on China.
Asked if China had a “generally positive or negative effect on world affairs” only 17% of respondents in France said it was positive, down from 36% in the first survey in 2019. In Germany, that figure was even lower, at 13%, down from 30% four years ago.
Many other Western countries mirrored this trend, but the story is slightly different in Africa, where China is the continent’s largest trading partner. Although its ranking also dropped slightly over the four-year period in Nigeria and South Africa, across the continent, China was still widely seen as a force for good.
In South Africa 61% of respondents saw China’s influence in the world as positive, in Kenya the support for China was higher at 82% and, in Nigeria, it was highest out of the three, standing at 83%.
Still, despite Beijing’s no-strings loans and large infrastructure projects as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, African support for the U.S. remained slightly higher.
In South Africa, 69% of people interviewed saw the U.S. as a generally positive force, and in both Kenya and Nigeria that number was at 88%.
On a separate question about which country, China or the U.S., respondents would prefer to have as the global superpower, 20 of the 25 countries polled chose the U.S., including all four African nations by a huge margin.
Seventy-seven percent of Nigerians chose the U.S. as the preferred superpower, as did 80% of Kenyans, and to a lesser extent 59% of South Africans.
“Results from the African countries in this study stand out for how they reflect such positive views toward both America and China as actors on the world stage,” Joel Rogers de Waal, academic director at YouGov, told VOA.
“At the same time, however, they show an obvious preference for having America, rather than China, as the reigning superpower, which perhaps raises some interesting questions about the progress of Chinese soft power in these parts of Africa.”
On other, more specific questions, the U.S. fared less favorably. For example, asked which country had engaged in “bullying” behavior globally, Washington trumped Beijing in all three African nations.
Likewise on the question of which country has “given military support to one side or another in a foreign civil war, in ways that do more harm than good to the people of that country.” Africans blamed the U.S. for this more than China. And in terms of being suspected of interference in other countries’ national elections, the U.S. again fared worse than China.
And although Washington increasingly warns Africa and the world of the threat of Chinese spying and surveillance, respondents in both South Africa and Nigeria placed more blame for international cyberattacks on the U.S.
Question of Taiwan
While China was more popular among African and many other global South countries surveyed than it was in the West, that support was not unconditional.
The survey was conducted around the time Taiwan was in the news amid the controversial visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the contested island. Since then, Washington has warned that China could move to annex Taiwan sooner than expected.
In Beijing, at the Chinese Communist Party’s congress, President Xi Jinping said he reserved the option of taking “all measures necessary” on the issue of Taiwan.
While the vast majority of African governments do not have diplomatic relations with Taipei and back Beijing—which regards the self-governing island as part of greater China—the survey indicates ordinary Africans differ with their political leaders on the issue.
“If China used force against Taiwan … do you think other countries should provide help?” the poll asked. Some 60% of Nigerians thought help should be provided to Taiwan, while 63% of Kenyans agreed, as did 47% of South Africans.
Those numbers were higher even than in some Western countries, with only 38% of French people surveyed saying help should be provided to Taiwan, and just 52% of respondents in the U.S. agreeing.
The data indicates that global politics are not as binary as some believe, with ordinary people in Africa able to see China as a generally positive force in the world, while also expressing concerns about some of its policies. as well as support for the defense of Taiwan.