Western views of China more positive among those aged 18 to 24, survey finds

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Westerners aged 18 to 24 hold more positive attitudes towards China than their elders, standing out from a generally negative perception of the world’s second largest economy, a survey has found.

American think tanks the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Marshall Fund conducted a poll of attitudes in 11 countries, including the United States and Germany, on a range of topics such as relations with China, war in the Middle East and responses to the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

Released on Monday, the report found that over half the 11,000 people surveyed saw China as a rival and had a negative view of its global influence, but that young people had a more positive attitude.

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“Across all countries in the survey, a plurality have a negative perception of Beijing’s influence in global affairs,” the Transatlantic Trends report said.

“In Canada, the US, Germany and the UK, younger respondents hold a remarkably cooperative view on their country’s relationship with China.”

In both Canada and Germany, 42 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 saw China as a partner, compared with their respective national averages of 27 and 28 per cent, the survey found.

In Britain, 29 per cent of young people considered China a partner, compared with the national average of 20 per cent, while in the US, 25 per cent aged 18 to 24 considered China a partner, compared with just 15 per cent of the wider American public.

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The overall poll results reflected a wider trend of a deteriorating relationship between China and the West since the start of the pandemic, with perceptions of China having turned more negative in countries such as the US, Britain and European Union member countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping last week called on Communist Party officials and state-controlled media to “tell China’s stories well” and reiterated the need to “create a favourable external public opinion environment”.

Germany had the highest share of respondents who expressed a negative sentiment about China’s influence, at 67 per cent, and the highest, along with Sweden, who supported a tougher stance on China’s human rights issues, at 69 per cent, according to the survey.

Points of contention between Beijing and the West such as human rights and cybersecurity were the areas in which respondents showed the highest support for a tougher stance towards China, at 62 per cent and 57 per cent respectively. Climate was the next highest, with 56 per cent.

The finding that young people had a more positive view of China than their elders followed that of a survey last year by the American research institution Pew Centre, which found that a higher proportion of millennials saw the country in a positive light than those older than 41.

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Benjamin Barton, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said he was not surprised young people expressed a more positive attitude towards China.

“Despite all of the trade wars and the politics behind China’s attempts to shake the global order, I think that some young people in the West see China favourably because – in some way – they picture China as a potential leader of change for the future and the world in their future,” Barton told the South China Morning Post.

It is important to keep in mind that some younger people have heard of China only as a challenger or a potential hegemon, as a country able to rival the US on many levels, according to Barton. This differed significantly from older generations, who grew up with the idea that China was still very much a closed and backward nation, Barton said.

“On the whole, however, I think the findings from these polls don’t really tell the full story ,” he said. “My sense is that even if one tranche of the demographic in some Western states might view China favourably, on the whole China’s image has really soured in the West.”

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Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of international relations and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the younger generation grew up in the digital age and were more cosmopolitan. Many young people in America and Europe have direct experience of interacting with their peers from China at school or at work. As a result, their views of China and the Chinese people tend to be much broader and more balanced.

“They are also critical of many of China‘s policies, but they seem to understand great transformations taking place in China and appreciate positive developments in China, such as effective control of the coronavirus, [and others],” Zhu said.

“Such results are also encouraging since young people are future leaders of the world. If they can see the world more objectively and treat China both as a challenge and an opportunity, then confrontation is less likely in the years ahead. Both Western countries and China should encourage more interactions among the young people so that we can work together to address common global challenges.”

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