Western attitudes have hardened toward Beijing amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a majority of Britons, Americans and French viewing China as a malign force in the world, according to a new poll.
The survey by the British-based research group Institute for Global Change found that 60% of British and French citizens now view Beijing as a “force for bad” in the world. That view is shared by 56% of Americans and 47% of Germans. Only 3% of Britons, 4% of Germans and 5% of the French and Americans identified China as a force for good.
The Institute for Global Change was founded by former British prime minister Tony Blair and the poll was conducted by the YouGov agency.
While warning against pursuing a full-blown Cold War against China because of its deep economic ties with the West, Blair, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said in comments accompanying the poll results that Beijing has “serious questions” to answer over its handling of the coronavirus when it first emerged.
Western leaders have accused Beijing of spreading disinformation about the origins of the virus and for evasiveness about the scale and infectiousness of the disease.
On Dec. 9, 2019, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on the first case of COVID-19 identified in Wuhan province. But it was not until Dec. 31, after suppressing Chinese doctors' warnings, that the country officially warned the World Health Organization that it had detected “pneumonia of unknown etiology,” say analysts and Western officials.
The poll, according to Blair, showed “there has been, during the COVID crisis, a sharp move amongst Western public opinion, to a markedly more hostile attitude towards China.”
But the former British prime minister urged Western powers to take a long-term strategic view of relations with Beijing rather than pursing an “ad hoc or purely reactive” strategy, adding that a distinction should be drawn clearly between the Chinese people and the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Anger toward the Beijing government has been boiling for weeks in Britain and other Western countries, as the deadly coronavirus has wreaked havoc and turned the world upside down. As international criticism has mounted about China’s initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak — and amid growing accusations Beijing may have obscured the origins of the deadly virus, as well as covering up the severity of the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan — Beijing’s diplomats, nicknamed “wolf warriors,” have clashed with host countries in a way seldom seen in peacetime.
They have accused Western critics of whipping up anti-Chinese fervor and say the criticism towards China is a deflection, accusing Western powers of using it to disguise their own mishandling of the pandemic.
The Chinese government’s decision last month to sidestep Hong Kong’s legislature and to force through a new national security law that would allow Beijing to stifle political dissent in the enclave has added to the rising tensions between China and Western powers — as have China’s efforts to tighten control of the South China Sea amid territorial disputes with neighbors.
In Washington, there has been growing talk of economic and technological separation from China, with lawmakers calling for a scaling back of U.S. reliance on prescription drugs, medical supplies and other critical resources from China. Some European governments are also discussing how to reduce dependence on China for some goods and are planning to restrict what domestic businesses can be bought by Chinese companies.
On Thursday. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States and the European Union need to shape a shared understanding of how to handle China. Pompeo said he had accepted a proposal by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to establish a formal U.S.- EU dialogue on China and would travel to Europe “in a handful of weeks” to host the first session.
Midweek Chinese and EU leaders held a videoconference summit to discuss trade links, climate change, cybersecurity and the COVID-19 pandemic, but it ended without any agreements. European officials released a cautious statement saying that “engaging and cooperating with China is both an opportunity and a necessity” but noting “at the same time, we have to recognize that we do not share the same values, political systems or approach to multilateralism.”
The statement was widely viewed by analysts as an indication that the EU will likely cease prioritizing economic and trade issues over human rights and other issues in its relations with Beijing. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, raised human rights issues during the videoconference with Chinese leaders — and accused China of being behind the hacking of computer systems and hospital networks in European countries, saying such actions would not be tolerated.
The release of the polling data showing the hardening of Western public opinion towards China coincided with the publication by the Pentagon of a list of 20 Chinese companies said to have ties to the People’s Liberation Army and operating directly or indirectly in the United States.
The Pentagon has been required to report to Congress commercial Chinese entities determined to be owned or controlled by the Chinese Army. U.S. lawmakers also have expressed concern about the danger of exporting critical U.S. technologies to companies with Chinese ties. The U.S. president has the option under a 1999 law to impose sanctions on companies included on the Pentagon’s list.
Among the companies listed is the telecom giant Huawei, which is set to participate in the development of 5G networks in Britain and some other European countries. The U.S. has long urged allies, including Britain, on national security grounds to bar Huawei from involvement in building their next-generation wireless technology.
The coronavirus pandemic may prompt Britain to abandon a limited 5G deal it agreed to with Huawei in January. A newly-formed Conservative group in the House of Commons called the China Research Group is urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take a robust line with China’s communist leaders, saying that Beijing’s move to stamp out political opposition in Hong Kong should serve as a “final wake-up call.”
On Thursday, former British prime minister Blair said Johnson should side with the U.S. on the issue of Huawei and abandon the decision to allow the telecom giant even a limited role in the development of the network.