A European parliamentarian during a bilateral meeting with China in a file photo. Image: AFP

By all accounts, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a dyed-in-the-wool Sinophile during his stint as London’s mayor, the post he leveraged into the premiership in 2019.

Those warm feelings carried over initially in his move to Downing Street, where he was filmed in January 2020 painting the eyes of customed dragon dancers in a Chinese New Year ritual attended by Beijing’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

But by April last year, after the pandemic started its lethal global spread, his Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab set a new tone when he said that relations with China cannot “return to normal.”

Later that year, Johnson’s decision to block Chinese tech giant Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G network solidified the trend, reversing what were previously cordial and constructive ties.  

British public opinion has shifted with Johnson’s government. Whereas only 55% of Brits viewed China negatively in 2019, by 2020 the rate had risen to 74%, making Brits more hostile to China than even Americans that year, according to Pew Research Center surveys. 

2020 is now widely referred to in media reports as the year that “China lost Europe”, but the question now is whether European sentiment on China is significantly or only marginally improving.  

According to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey measuring international views on China, published on June 30, the percentage of Europeans who view China unfavorably has declined somewhat in 2021 compared to 2020. 

In France, 70% of respondents held unfavorable views of China in 2020. That percentage is down a tad to 66% this year. In Spain, it declined from 63% last year to 57%. In the UK, it was down to 63% from 74%.  

Boris Johnson during a visit to China in 2013. His government has recently given China the thumbs down. Photo: Facebook

Surprisingly, given that Germans tended to have less negative views of China than other Europeans up until 2020, due to the two sides’ deep commercial ties, they were the only national cohort where unfavorable views stayed the same at 71% in both 2020 and 2021.

Of the nine European countries surveyed, seven had the most negative views of China in 2020. 

Richard Turcsanyi, program director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at the Czech Republic’s Palacky University, said that the Pew Research survey results should be taken with a pinch of salt since a very broad question was asked of respondents. 

But, he said, “last year was special because China was put into the spotlight due to Covid-19.” 

Analysts in Europe are now debating whether European public sentiment on China worsened as much as it did last year solely because of Beijing’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and Chinese diplomats’ so-called “wolf warrior” rhetoric, which at times openly mocked the continent’s high death rates from the disease.

Some 52% of French respondents said their views of China had worsened in 2020, for whom “Covid-19 is by far the most common theme associated with China by the French public in 2020,” according to a report by Palacky University’s Sinophone Borderlands project.

But others wonder if Europe’s anti-China turn was instead motivated by deeper issues such as the recent increased focus on Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang, where ethnic Uighurs are controversially being held in so-called “vocational camps”, and its crackdown on Hong Kong.  

These issues, as well as China’s more assertive posture towards Taiwan, were not prominent talking points in the European public sphere before 2020, analysts say. 

Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times, wrote last November that 2020 was the year when “Europe wakes up to the China challenge.”

That awakening was bolstered in March when Beijing sanctioned several European politicians and think tanks in retaliation for EU sanctions on a handful of Chinese officials directly involved in rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

China has mastered the using of surveillance technology in its clampdown on Xinjiang. Image: Facebook

On July 8, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution on human rights issues in Hong Kong that included a call on EU countries to decline invitations to attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in protest.

The non-binding resolution came just days after China, France and Germany held a virtual summit where the three sides agreed to expand cooperation.

The Chinese state-run Global Times responded that some European Parliament politicians are “trying to interrupt recovering China-Europe ties” and using “human rights” complaints as “excuses to launch a new round of provocations.” Typically, the article portrayed the resolution as an attempt to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.

Europe’s perceptions are being shaped by media reports. A survey conducted by affiliate unions of the International Federation of Journalists at the end of 2020 found that media outlets worldwide had increased their coverage of China-related issues last year. 

However, it also found that European media reports on China were increasingly positive in 2020, a result that may have been skewed by including non-EU countries on the continent that are typically more pro-China. 

A study published in December by academics Xiaoling Zhang and Gareth Shaw found that only 14% of British media reports on China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic in the first six months of 2020 were “positive”, while 42% were deemed as “negative.” 

Moreover, newspapers controlled by the Chinese Communist Party have increasingly derided European media portrayals of China since early 2020 – an indication that Beijing is seeking to counter the increasingly negative publicity it receives in European media. 

For instance, a Chinese People’s Daily article in March ran with the headline: “Not one word of truth in Western media’s anti-China reports on Xinjiang.”

Still, an April study by the European Think-tank Network on China argued that China’s soft power in Europe “has fallen on hard times.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) welcomes EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2019. Photo: AFP / ludovic Marin

“I would agree that while Covid was the main reason for the historically unfavorable views of China in Europe last year, the somewhat fading image of China’s role among the population could have contributed to slight improvements of China’s image,” Turcsanyi  said. 

However, he continued, the Pew Research Center surveys show only a slight change in public sentiment between 2020 and 2021, while significant improvements in the views of China in Europe are unlikely anytime in the future. 

“There are still lots of strong factors which will keep China low [in public sentiment] – especially negative perceptions of China’s foreign policy, human rights, environmental impact, economic practices – and others, including Covid,” he said. 

Noah Barkin, a China expert in Berlin with the Rhodium Group, echoes that assessment. “I wouldn’t read too much into the improvement in sentiment towards China in a few European countries,” he said.  

“The dynamics behind the deterioration in China’s image are still very much in place if you look at Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the sanctions imposed by Beijing against European lawmakers,” he added. 

Moreover, Barkin argued, China’s image could deteriorate over the course of 2021 as the EU and US are likely to engage in deeper cooperation on the supposed “challenges” China poses to them, he said. 

On the other hand, European views of the United States have improved markedly with the transition in January from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

Another recent report from the Pew Research Center found that across nine European countries surveyed 62% had a favorable view of the US, compared to just 28% for China. 

Only 16% of Germans, for instance, reckon Chinese President Xi Jinping can be trusted to do the right thing in world affairs, compared with 78% who trust in US President Joe Biden. 

US President Joe Biden at a press conference on the final day of the G7 summit at Cornwall Airport Newquay, near Newquay, Cornwall, on June 13, 2021. The group is looking outdated in the modern era. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Moreover, the EU is set to roll out a series of new regulations aimed mostly at China, from supply chain due diligence legislation to an anti-coercion instrument “that could provoke strong reactions from Beijing,” Barkin predicted.   

At the same time, Beijing may also soon lose some key allies in Europe. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly vetoed the EU from issuing strong statements against China, so much so that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last month publicly backed structural changes to how EU foreign policy decisions are made. 

China’s Xi praised Orban for “safeguarding the overall China-Europe relations” in April. But Hungary’s authoritarian leader could be defeated at next year’s general elections as opposition parties coalesce around frontrunning Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who is known for his anti-Beijing stances.  

More importantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 15 years in power in September ahead of federal elections. While her tipped successor is likely to continue with Merkel’s soft approach to China, a growing cohort of German politicians are demanding a tougher line.  

Analysts say it may have been China’s early opaque handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and then its hostile diplomacy thereafter that began Europe’s turn towards more anti-China sentiment that has since given voice to a litany of other complaints. 

Issues like China’s human rights abuses and geopolitical ambitions have increasingly become part of European public consciousness, not just topics addressed by academics at elite conferences, analysts say. 

“At the moment it is difficult to envision a meaningful improvement in sentiment towards China across Europe. The risks are still pointing to the downside,” said Barkin.