Flags illustration: Chinese and American. Photo: AFP

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people around the world have a low opinion of China these days. What might surprise some is that on certain measures opinions of the United States are even lower.

In a pre-election Pew Research Center survey of people in 14 countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US), 73% had a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of China. In nine of those countries, views of China were the lowest in the 12 years Pew has been conducting the surveys.

When Pew polled the same countries minus the US, 64% had a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of the US. Overall, then, the US was viewed negatively, though less negatively than China. On three specific questions, however, the US ranked worse:

  • Covid-19 has been the big story this year and President Donald Trump has been critical of China’s response. So were Pew’s respondents: 61% thought China has done a bad job of handling it. But they were even more critical of the US: 84% said the US has bungled it.
  • China’s oppression of its Uighur minority, crackdown on Hong Kong and Covid-19 response haven’t done anything to make President Xi Jinping popular abroad, and only 19% of those surveyed expressed confidence in Xi doing the right thing in world affairs. But even fewer – only 17% – had confidence in Donald Trump.
  • Asked which country is the world’s dominant economic power, 48% said China while only 35% picked the U.S.

What should we make of all this? Should we care what they think? The American Declaration of Independence said Americans should pay “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” and while 14 countries are not all of mankind, these 14 are developed, industrial, highly influential countries. Accept or reject their opinions, they’re worthy of our attention.

In analyzing Pew’s reports, the first thing to note is that while the coronavirus dragged down both countries, this isn’t just a coronavirus phenomenon. It’s a continuation of a years-long decline in how the world views both superpowers.

It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s dismal showing as somehow partisan. In Western Europe, at least, confidence in Barack Obama was very high, confidence in George W Bush very low. One problem with this rationalization is that even those who support right-wing populist parties in 11 Western European countries recorded negative views.

They’re considerably more pro-Trump than Europeans as a whole but in none of the 11 do a majority of the right-wing populists express confidence in the president.

That was then: In 1998 a Chinese consumer walks out of a Pepsi sportswear shop, an off-shoot of the American brand-name beverage Pepsi-Cola, in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Stephen Shaver

A curious thing is that South Korea is the only country in which a majority – 59% – have a favorable view of the US. Moreover, 77% of South Koreans said the US is the world’s dominant economy.

By way of comparison, only 52% of Americans saw the US as dominant. This is especially interesting considering that China is a much bigger trading partner of South Korea than the US. It buys 25% of South Korea’s exports; America buys 14%.

Do the South Koreans know something Americans don’t know when it comes to assessing economies? By one measure – nominal gross domestic product expressed in US dollars at market exchange rates – the US is still far and away the world’s largest economy. By another measure – purchasing power parity GDP – China has already surpassed the US.

(I can’t imagine that many of the Americans or Koreans who were surveyed know or care much about these technical measures. For anyone interested in the difference between them, this Economist piece explains it clearly.)

In any event, Pew’s surveys aren’t trying to determine which economy is dominant; they’re trying to determine which economy is perceived as dominant. And, the South Koreans aside, it’s pretty clear China wins the perception duel.

Americans needn’t fret about this. China was bound to have the world’s largest economy at some point. China has 1.4 billion people while the US has 328 million. A country that has four-plus times the population of another ought to be able to produce more goods and services. Perception may be ahead of reality, at least by the nominal GDP measure, but reality will catch up soon enough.

A final thing to consider is this: What the world thinks is interesting, and worrisome, but ultimately it matters less than what China’s leaders think. Starting with the 2008 financial crisis, they’ve seen the US as a declining power and that perception has emboldened them to take risks.

There’s danger in this. They could well be underestimating America’s strengths and overestimating their own. Yes, the US faces many challenges, but we are a rich, resilient country. We’ve been underestimated more than once.

China may have the world’s largest economy, but it’s a middle-income country with challenges of its own, starting with demography. For years economists said China’s challenge was to get rich before it got old.

Instead, it’s gotten old having only reached middle-income territory. As its total population begins to decline a decade from now and economic growth slows, how will China support its rapidly expanding over-60 population?

It will be interesting to see how Pew’s respondents appraise the US and China in 2030.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published October 19  by that news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

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