If the United States and China are competing over global public opinion, who’s winning, and where?
As the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States has moved from engagement to the present mantra of competition, cooperation, and confrontation, both countries have been paying more attention to how they are viewed around the world. Like many things in life, strategic competition is better when you have friends. And both the US and China are working hard to convince publics (and leaders) around the world that their initiatives, investments, and interests are the ones to sign on to. In the terminology of the Chinese Communist Party, this contest over global public opinion is part of a competition of discourse power, a broadly-used term that includes efforts to shape global narratives and win over global audiences.
Discourse Power and US-China Competition
The concept of discourse power has gotten more attention in recent years in part because global opinion of China has undergone a notable negative shift. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Joshua Kurlantzick argues in his latest paper, “the scale of China’s negative public image today is staggering—even more so given that the United States has not fully recovered the levels of global trust in its leadership and democracy that it enjoyed in earlier eras.” This negative turn is clearest when looking at polls from western Europe, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. In the most recent Pew Global Attitude Survey, for example, unfavorable views of China are “at or near historic highs” in most of the 19 countries surveyed.
But as Kenton Thibaut and Tuvia Gering point out in their recent discussion about discourse power on the China in Africa podcast, the PRC’s struggle isn’t just about shaping narratives in the West. It’s also about competing for public opinion (“telling China’s story well”) in the broad Global South: in Central and South America, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Southeast Asia. What do public attitudes on the US and China look like in those regions of the world?
To better understand how the competition for global public opinion between the US and China is playing out, we turn to the 2022 Democracy Perception Index (DPI). This 53-nation survey was commissioned by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and was conducted between March 30 and May 10, with around 1,000 respondents per country. Results are weighted by age, gender, and education. As noted previously, there are caveats to using the DPI data. The poll was conducted online, with respondents selected through a recruitment process somewhat vaguely described in the report as “open” and “leveraging the reach of over 40,000 third-party apps and mobile websites”—suggesting there may not have been a traditional sampling process involved in all of the countries included in the poll. And it seems likely that the DPI poll has a harder time getting an accurate read on public views in ‘hard targets’ like Iran compared to more open countries like the United States or Mexico.
Like the widely covered Pew Global Attitude Survey, the DPI survey finds that views of China in major western European nations and among key US allies in Asia are strongly negative, while those same publics view the United States favorably. Only two nations out of Pew’s 19-country survey differ from this pattern: Malaysia and Singapore. In both countries, the public is more favorably inclined toward China, but does not necessarily view the US negatively. And as the 53-nation DPI survey shows, this pattern is not an uncommon one across the world.
US Viewed More Favorably by Most Nations
There are several ways to look at the DPI data, and how you look at the data will undoubtedly shape the conclusions you draw. First, let’s answer the obvious question: around the world, do publics view China or the United States more favorably? Among the 53 nations polled in the DPI survey, most (44) have a more favorable view of the United States than of China, while nine have a more favorable view of China than of the United States. This looks like bad news for PRC efforts at strengthening discourse power: not only is the US viewed more favorably in Europe and among US allies and partners in Asia, but more positive views of the US dominate in South America and in the three sub-Saharan African countries included in the poll.
Of course, there are some caveats to this finding. For one, not all of the differences are particularly significant. The DPI poll in Singapore, for example, found that similar proportions hold favorable views of the US (33%) and China (32%). This way of looking at the data also glosses over publics who hold negative views of both countries. Indonesia is a good example. Indonesians tend to hold negative views of both the United States and China, and the difference in positive opinion between China (18%) and the US (16%) is not statistically significant.
The Global South Straddles the US-China Divide
As both of these examples show, there are many cases where publics view both the United States and China positively—or negatively. And changing how we look at the data presents a different perspective on the struggle over discourse power, as can be seen in the figure below. Here, countries are coded based on the net favorability scores given to the United States and China.
This different way of looking at the data suggests a different set of conclusions. In a head-to-head, zero-sum contest of popularity, China is clearly losing to the United States. There are only two countries polled where China is viewed favorably and the United States is not: Russia, and China itself. Conversely, there are a large number of countries (25 in total) that view the United States favorably and China negatively. This group includes most of the European nations polled as well as America’s allies and partners in Asia, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.
However, half of the countries polled do not fall into either of these groups. Publics in six nations view both countries negatively. Another 20—including much of South America and every African nation polled—view both China and the United States favorably. To the extent that PRC discourse power is concentrated not on winning friends among US allies and partners, but is instead focused on the broad Global South, this suggests a greater degree of success. Those efforts at growing PRC discourse power in these regions is undergirded by growing PRC trade and investment influence in South America and Africa, with the United States falling to second-place status as an economic partner for many countries in both regions.
Coexistence or Domination?
Either way you look at the DPI data, China is clearly fighting an uphill battle for public favor. The United States is broadly viewed more favorably than China, and far more nations are favorable only to the United States than is the case for China. But the news is not all bad for Beijing. Across the Global South, publics are favorable toward both nations, and other trends in trade and investment are more clearly in line with the PRC’s narrative of a rising East and a declining West.
Additionally, the DPI data is only a snapshot of how publics feel at one moment in time. How will publics around the world react to the domestic and foreign policies of both the United States and China in coming years is still unknown. Also unknown is how hard these two major powers will work to shape opinion in the region. Should these generally favorable views hold, will Beijing and Washington view that as an acceptable form of neutrality, or will the US and China press these publics (and political elites) to pick a side?