Li Ruiqiu: How Chinese People See the World and Their Own Country

This analysis was originally written in Chinese by Li Ruiqiu and translated into English by US-China Perception Monitor staff. The link to the original article can be accessed here

How do Chinese people see the world and their own country? The three surveys analyzed in this article provide a window into the views and opinions of Chinese people through empirical data. With this data, on the one hand, we are able to interpret the political implications of the survey results and explore how we handle relations with China. On the other hand, I believe, the Chinese government can incorporate the survey respondents’ views into its diplomatic and political considerations to make reasonable judgements and conduct more effective diplomacy.

There are many public opinion studies. Among them are public opinion polls which are regularly conducted by research institutes. In the West, for example, opinion polls are primarily conducted by think-tanks, such as the Pew Research Center and Gallup. In the U.S., the Pew Research Center often publishes polls examining how Americans view specific domestic issues (e.g., how Americans view the environment and renewable energy) or how they view foreign countries (e.g., their attitudes towards Russia and Ukraine). 

As China continues to grow stronger, other countries have started paying more attention to Chinese people and their views on domestic affairs and the world. However, conducting academic research or public opinion surveys in China can sometimes cause stiff resistance. As many researchers point out, with Chinese government tightening reins on information flows, , questions such as “what do Chinese people think?” and “how do Chinese people view the world?”  mayremain a “black box”. 

Despite  these many difficulties, we are still pleasantly surprised to discover that scholars from all over the world have been constantly working on exploring and uncovering the most reliable sources of public opinion in China and interpreting Chinese people’s attitudes towards China and the world. This has significantly helped us better understand the ancient while vibrant country. 

This article will analyze the results of three recently published public opinion surveys conducted in mainland China. The surveys cover the Chinese public’s views on a range of domestic issues as well as its attitudes towards world’s most influential countries. By comparing and contrasting different survey results, we expect to have a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of China.

The surveys are the “Chinese Outlook on International Security” survey report (2023) conducted by the Center for International Security and Strategy of Tsinghua University (hereafter referred to as “Tsinghua University”), the Chinese Citizens’ Global Perception Survey (2023) conducted by the China Institute at the University of Alberta (hereafter CCGPS), and the fifth Asian Barometer Survey (hereafter ABS) conducted by the Hu Fu Center for East Asia Democratic Studies at National Taiwan University. (美中故事汇) also reprinted and translated these three survey reports (see Tsinghua University, CCGPS, and ABS).

Chinese People’s International Outlook and Impression

We will start by comparing the results of the “Tsinghua University” and CCGPS reports since they both examine Chinese people’s international outlook. First, how do Chinese people view other countries? Unsurprisingly, respondents tend to have a neutral or even unfavorable attitudes towards countries such as the United States, Japan, and India. This may be shaped by China’s propaganda apparatus.  For example, China’s official propaganda typically describes the United States, Japan, and India as its international competitors. On the contrary, both the “Tsinghua University” and CCGPS reports show that respondents have positive impressions of Russia. For example, the “Tsinghua University” survey found that more than half of the respondents (58.4%) held a positive attitude towards Russia while only 7.8% held a negative attitude. This trend seems to fall right in line with China’s official propaganda, that is, an emphasis on the  Sino-Russian “comprehensive strategic partnership“with “no limits and no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.

The CCGPS report also confirms this finding. While respondents consider it the most influential country in the world, even surpassing Russia, the United States is also seen as the least trustworthy country simultaneously. On the contrary, Russia is considered the most trustworthy and important country for China’s future. The survey also found that the public most expects China and Russia to expand their economic, technology, and research cooperation.  By contrast, such expectations for the United States are even lower than those for Germany.

While Chinese people’s attitudes toward the United States seem to continually worsen, “Tsinghua University” survey shows that “Sino-US relations” have become the third most concerned issue to the public, only after topics like the “pandemic” and “territorial and maritime disputes”. Considering its profound engagement with the COVID pandemic and China’s territorial disputes, in effect, the United States remains the most cared country among Chinese people. The ABS survey also confirms this (note that a  more detailed analysis of ABS will be expounded on later). In it, most respondents acknowledge the influence of the United States on China (73%), only that merely 23% of them think this influence to be positive. 

When asked “How will US-China relations evolve in future five years?”, interestingly, nearly half of the respondents believe that Sino-US relations will somewhat improve or improve significantly in the future. Indeed, many people also think it will get worse (24.8% in total). 

In addition to issues concerning foreign relations, the CCGPS survey also provides us with information related to people’s personal everyday life preferences (including travel, study, work, and immigration), and the results are quite thought-provoking. For example, among the more than a dozen countries selected (including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, India, etc.), Russia has surprisingly become the country that Chinese people most want to travel, work and immigrate to, which sort of contradicts to our intuition and the actual number. For example, nearly 1.5 million Chinese citizens traveled to Russia in 2019. Although this accounted for one-third of Russia’s international tourists that year, it still makes a huge contrast to  the 2.83 million Chinese tourists who visited the United States. This gap is even more eye-catching when considering how much further the U.S. is from China as well as higher travel expenses the trip will take.  The numbers show that Russia does not seem to be the first choice for Chinese tourists in reality. Russia did not even make it into the top ten international travel destinations for Chinese people . Besides, the actual number of Chinese people working in and emigrating to Russia is even smaller.  Due to a lack of dated data, we only found that in 2010, only 29,000 Chinese citizens immigrated to Russia, a number even smaller than the 35,000 Chinese immigrants in 2002. By contrast, in 2010 alone, there were 1.6 million Chinese immigrants in the United States, making them the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States. This number rose to almost 2.4 million by 2021.

China’s Position and Role in the World

How do the respondents view China’s role and its status in the international arena? Research by Tsinghua University and CCGPS shows that Chinese people think their country’s global influence is far ahead of other major countries (including international organizations) and even higher than that of the United States. This attitude may be explained by the rise of China’s economic power and its role as a leader in global and regional affairs in recent years (e.g., China’s role in leading the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).

What is the public’s attitude towards China’s globalization and international cooperation? Do they desire China to continue its role as a “leader” in diplomacy? The majority of respondents (68%) believe that globalization generally does more good than harm to national development. To add, even more (78.3%) hope that China will play a more active role in diplomacy. This suggests that, contrary to previous studies, the Chinese public’s view on diplomacy is becoming more aggressive and assertive.

Chinese People’s Views on Major Domestic Issues and Democracy

With the first two surveys focusing on the respondents’ views on international affairs, we are throwing out one more question, “what is the public’s attitude towards China’s domestic situation and even the concept of ‘democracy’”? Since 2001, the Hu Fo Center for East Asia Democratic Studies has regularly carried out surveys on the dynamics of democracy in major countries in East and Southeast Asia (ABS). So far, five large-scale surveys have been completed.

That said, the Center is a reliable and reputable survey institution in academia, whose results often provide researchers with an invaluable data source on democracy and democratization. With major authoritarian countries tightening their controls on information policies in, democracy has become a sensitive topic, to some extent. However, we are very excited to see that ABS still presents us with comprehensive big data on the topic.

The survey pertaining to Chinese people’s views on democracy and domestic affairs was mainly conducted from July to December 2019. It contains a series of core questions, such as the respondents’ evaluation of China’s economic performance, political participation, regime legitimacy, trust in the government, understanding of democracy, and so on. Due to word limit and time constraints, we will only examine a few specific issues and questions cited by

First, the ABS survey shows that the public is not completely averse to the concept of democracy and its practice. In fact, only a small number of respondents (no more than 20%) feel that the democratic system would cause poor economic performance, destabilize social order, or generate negative social and moral impacts. Admittedly, around 30% of the respondents think that a democratic system is not decisive and full of various problems. However, only 18% of the respondents express that it does not matter whether the system is democratic or not as long as the government can solve the country’s economic problems. In other words, many Chinese people still believe that democracy is a benign and effective political system, and the pursuit of a democratic system remains falling into the expectation of the vast majority of the respondents.

Notably, how the so-called democratic system are understood is a bit complex in this context. For example, we generally think of China as an authoritarian society rather than democratic. But the ABS survey found that this authoritarian regime enjoys a very high approval rating in China, that is, high regime legitimacy. For example, 82% of the respondents say they would rather live under this system of government than any other. 73% think that this system deserves people’s support even if it is flawed. 81% are proud of this system. And 75% think that the government is capable of solving the problems the country faces with in the long run.

In addition, the survey also provides interesting takeaways from questions pertaining to domestic corruption issues. Although existing research indicates corruption a critical problem in China, the ABS survey shows that nearly 70% of respondents believe that corruption and bribe-taking are not widespread, regardless of them being at the central or local government level. Moreover, only 13% of the respondents or anyone they know have witnessed corruption or bribe-taking in the past year, which also runs against the findings by international organizations such as Transparency International. According to Transparency International, 28% of Chinese public servants have paid bribes in the past twelve months. In addition, when asked whether the anti-corruption campaigns are effective, most people believe so at both national or local government level.

Interpreting China through Public Opinion Surveys

How shall we understand these survey results? First, all three surveys provide readers with thorough, nuanced, valuable, and relatable updated data. This is especially the case with the Chinese public’s views on Russia, as well as people’s attitudes towards democracy or specific domestic political issues. Despite the close relationship between the Chinese government and the Russian government, we know little about the attitudes of Chinese people towards their “friendly” neighbor because previous studies rarely covered Chinese public opinion on Russia. [1] Results of these surveys show that, perhaps due to the positiveness Chinese officials have expressed on Sino-Russian relations, the public’s attitude towards Russia is also optimistic and specifically higher than that of any other major powers. To some extent, these findings challenge some existing views that China’s public opinion is shifting away from Russia. The CCGPS survey confirms that Chinese people’s positive attitudes towards Russia are extensive and have even expanded from the political and diplomatic domains to individuals’ mundane life, including tourism, employment and immigration.

Second, we are concerned about Sino-US relations and China’s future development. Many recent surveys prove that although Chinese people’s attitudes towards the United States and its allies are gradually becoming less favorable, they still have expectations. With this said, the public is still very dissatisfied with the role and influence of the United States in international affairs, so much so that they think that the US influence on China and Asia is negative. Their trust in the United States is thus also low. Even in terms of personal life preferences, the public seems to have lost interest in traveling and working in the United States.

On the other hand, nonetheless, respondents are still very concerned about the troubling developments in Sino-US relations, hoping that the relations will improve in the future. After all, the United States is still China’s largest trading partner.

Moreover, it is worth mentioning that when asked by the ABS survey which country’s development model China should emulate in the future, 42% of the respondents chose the “Japanese” model, the highest among all countries. This was much higher than the proportion who chose China itself (15%) and the United States (8%), let alone the Russian model (1%). In other words, although the American model is obviously not popular with the public, many people still hope that China will follow a path virtually towards democracy in the future. However, the public is clearly more inclined to follow the model of another East Asian country like Japan rather than that of the United States and finds the former more suitable. Interestingly, despite China being adjacent to Russia and having stable diplomatic relations, few respondents chose to follow a Russian path for the future.

These findings are important but complicated. How do we interpret and relate them to China and its people? I argue that in our contacts and exchanges with China, we should attach more importance to China’s public opinion. First of all, although the government is believed to have an impact on public opinion, public opinion will also, in turn, drive the government’s decision-making. These relevant findings may remind the Chinese government that their confrontation with the United States is neither baseless nor without significant support. Yet, public opinion is already pointing to a hostile relationship with the United States. Previous studies have found that the performance and decision-making of the Chinese government is not divorced from public opinion. On the contrary, evidence shows that public opinion can influence the top diplomatic practitioners, especially in adopting an aggressive foreign policy. In other words, the current negative attitude of Chinese people towards the United States and other countries may be understood as the result of the government’s propaganda, but the current feedback from the public has largely lent Chinese officials more confidence in carrying it on. Essentially, the state’s anti-American sentiment could be seen as accountable and responsive to public opinion, through the means of which an authoritarian regime desires to maintain legitimacy (i.e., healthy government responsiveness).

Second, through these surveys, it can be seen that people’s attitudes and feelings towards the United States and other Western countries are very sensitive and delicate, which leaves Sino-US relations a lot of room for improvement at the non-government level. For example, from a certain point of view, the Chinese public resents the influence and pressure exerted by the United States and its allies around the world but agrees to a certain extent with the values and democratic concepts they have been promoting. Moreover, a considerable share of the respondents expect China to explore Japan’s development model in the future. Ultimately, respondents are concerned about the progress of Sino-US relations and hope that Sino-US relations can be improved.

In view of this, I urge that in communicating with China and its people, the world, especially the United States and its allies, should emphasize public diplomacy and promote more unofficial exchanges. The goal should be to release goodwill rather than malice to the people so that they have a more positive attitude towards the United States. Regardless of whether it can ultimately influence China’s official US policy, this is still a useful place to begin with.

Some people may question the results of these surveys, specifically that they may suffer from methodological problems leading to some findings that differ drastically from typical expectations. For instance, the findings that Chinese people regard Russia as the first choice for personal work and travel and that their support of regime legitimacy is very high are both plausible examples. Apart from issues related to the survey itself and the sampling method, there are several key explanations to questions and skepticism. First, the respondents may have been affected by the “social desirability bias”, that is, they tend to give answers in a manner that is desired by social expectations. For example, when the Chinese society has largely hosted a positive opinion of Russia, individual respondents may make choices consistent with the general public and the society but resistant or reluctant to express their own true (negative) opinion.

Second, in a non-democratic society like China, people will tend to practice a greater degree of “self-censorship” or “preference falsification”: people are afraid that their opinions will be disclosed to the public, even government officials, and thus keep their true thoughts to themselves. This phenomenon has also been confirmed by existing empirical research, specifically several studies in recent years that have found that Chinese respondents usually practice a relatively high degree of “self-censorship”. This is also one of the main reasons why many authoritarian regimes usually receive higher support rates in surveys, and conversely, democratic governments have lower support rates. Despite the anonymous nature of the surveys, respondents may still be too scared to express their true thoughts and feelings, opting for an attitude that is safer and more in line with the current political environment.

Third, China’s information control and the wide dissemination of official discourse may make people more susceptible to the state narrative, so they tend to make judgments and decisions consistent with the state. Admittedly, however, existing studies also indicate that the policy preferences of Chinese people are very diverse and are not necessarily influenced by the propaganda machine.

Indeed, there are also several other explanations to account for these findings and concerns.

However, in any case, these surveys can help us better understand Chinese people’s thinking through empirical data so that we can in turn formulate operative and efficacious strategies to cope and interact with China. Besides, I believe that the Chinese government could accommodate these respondents’ ideas and viewpoints into diplomatic and political considerations to make more reasonable judgments and conduct more effective diplomacy.