Q&A: Prof. Xiaojun Li discusses the findings of his latest research on Chinese public opinion

Professor Xiaojun Li

“For now, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which … discussions among the Chinese public can shape China’s foreign policies and influence domestic preferences for foreign products and services. But it would be unwise for anyone to ignore their voices,” writes Prof. Xiaojun Li and colleagues in the Diplomat. Public opinion of “the East” by citizens of “the West” is easy to find. But what does research tell us about the contrary? How did Biden’s arrival affect opinion of the US? How has opinion of European nations changed?

In his latest work, “Unpacking “the West”: Divergence and Asymmetry in Chinese Public Attitudes Towards Europe and the United States”, Prof. Li conducts extensive survey research to assess Chinese public opinion and shed new light on a previously one-sided conversation. Prof. Xiaojun Li took some time to answer some of our questions about his research.

How do you believe the results of your research will juxtapose/interact with the results of the Pew study? How do you think your work provides more context for their findings, if at all?

We launched this project partly out of the frustration that there are almost no comparable surveys about how Chinese people view foreign countries. We believe that our findings can fill this critical gap and provide a counterpoint to Pew’s study.

In your paper, you discuss the possibility of a “mutual image problem” rather than simply a “global image problem” on China’s end. What do you reckon would be political the consequences of such a problem?

The “mutual image problem” only occurs in the case of the U.S., but this should not be surprising considering how the bilateral relations between the two countries has been in a free fall.

How do you suggest that the differences in perceptions of the U.S. versus Europe arose?

The US has dominated the Chinese public’s attention towards foreign nations for a long time, both due to extensive media coverage and the large number of people who have studied and visited the US over several decades. Such disproportionate attention has turned from quite positive to very negative in recent years, beginning from the initiation of the trade war by President Trump, and has only intensified since (see our other paper: https://academic.oup.com/cjip/article/15/1/27/6548121). In the meantime, the negative views of the Chinese towards individual European countries have been much less intense and more diffuse.

What impact would you like the findings of your research to have, both in China, in “the West”, and beyond?

It remains to be seen whether the more positive views held by the Chinese regarding Europe will endure in the shadow of great power competition. If negative public perceptions of China persist in European countries, their governments may become more strident in their criticisms of China for domestic reasons. This could then set in motion a feedback loop whereby Chinese public perceptions of the European countries deteriorate as well, leading to the closing of the perception gaps. Much like what has transpired between the US and China, this could further narrow the scope of cooperation between China and Europe. Nevertheless, for the time being, European countries may be able to capitalise on their positive images in the eyes of the Chinese people to facilitate cooperation with China on issues of mutual interest, such as climate change, and may play a unique role in mediating tensions between the world’s two superpowers.

What implications does this have for Canadian foreign politics?

While the results were not included in this paper, our survey did ask about Canada as well. We found that Canada was neck and neck with the UK in terms of unfavourability (for more details, see https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/what-do-chinese-people-think-of-developed-countries/, and https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/what-do-chinese-people-think-of-developed-countries-2021-edition/). Thus, our response to the previous question should similarly apply to Canada.