International polling shows stark divides emerging in China’s global reputation but also significant support for the principle of Taiwanese defence.
The war in Ukraine is having effects on the international system that extend far beyond the immediate conflict. One of these has been to raise fears that something similar might happen between China and Taiwan – an island that is governed independently but viewed by the Chinese Government as part of its territory.
According to new findings from the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, a large share of international public opinion would support helping Taiwan, at least in theory, if China tried to take the island by force. However, the strength of this sentiment varies considerably from country to country and between forms of harder versus softer military support.
The same research also shows some dramatic divides in China’s global reputation between the West and the rest, alongside a sustained bounce in American soft power since the beginning of the Biden administration.
Across national samples in twenty-one countries surveyed on the subject of Taiwan, around half show majorities who believe that “other countries should provide help to Taiwan” if China used force against the island to make it part of the governed territory of China.
This includes all four anglophone countries in the sample, namely Britain (51%), Australia (62%), the United States (52%) and Canada (50%), alongside both Scandinavian countries of Sweden (55%) and Denmark (51%). Beyond the West, it also includes India (51%), Japan (55%), Kenya (63%) and Nigeria (60%).
Most other countries still reflect a balance of opinion that falls in favour of helping Taiwan but the sentiment is weaker. In France, for example, a plurality of 38% express this view, compared with a fifth (22%) who think the rest of the world should keep out of the fray, saying “other countries should not help either side”. In Germany, Spain and Poland, the respective balance is 43% to 27%, 38% to 22% and 40% to 15%. Two countries in the study stand out for being more closely divided between these views, namely Hungary (25%, 29%) and Mexico (33%, 30%).
When it comes to the specifics of what this help might entail, we also see a gap between support for harder versus softer forms of involvement. Support is mostly low, though not insignificant, for a US-led alliance of countries to engage in various measures including the provision of heavy weapons, regular troops, special forces or military ships to support Taiwanese forces. There is more support, however, for providing intelligence or military advisers, with at least 40% in ten out of thirteen Western countries, including Britain, the United States, France and Germany, and imposing heavy economic sanctions on China. There is also more willingness to consider certain ‘hybrid warfare’ measures aimed directly at undermining the Chinese Government, particularly among countries such as Sweden, Poland, Britain, Australia, the United States, Canada, India and the three African countries of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. This includes communicating pro-Taiwanese messages within the Chinese media, undertaking cyberattacks that disrupt the Chinese economy and providing support inside the country to those who oppose the Chinese Government.
In other words, public opinion in many cases reflects a combination of two sentiments, with a predictable aversion to the prospect of physical confrontation with China, yet considerable support for the cause of Taiwanese defence in principle.
These findings may relate to another trend in the survey: that China's reputation in some parts of the world has notably deteriorated. Over four years of annual fieldwork, the Globalism Project now shows a marked decline in positive attitudes to China across numerous countries since the first research was undertaken in 2019. This often amounts to such sentiment being cut approximately in half over that time. In Poland in 2019, for instance, 46% perceived China as playing a positive role in the world, compared with 24% in 2022. Other countries tell a similar story, such as France (36%, 17%), Germany (30%, 13%), Sweden (24%, 12%), Denmark (32%, 11%), Italy (41%, 24%), Britain (35%, 11%), Australia (40%, 18%) and India (44%, 23%). Results also suggest that Chinese reputation may be levelling out in this respect, with less change over the latest two years of fieldwork.
As part of this picture, it seems the pandemic continues to cast a discernible shadow over Beijing’s international standing. More than two years after the pandemic began, most people remain convinced that it started in China, while to a lesser extent, large numbers suspect the virus originated in some way from a laboratory – whether because a natural or artificial virus escaped by accident, or as something created and released on purpose – such as 60% or more in France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Thailand and South Africa. Only in Egypt and Saudi Arabia do we find a significantly different perspective on the story of coronavirus, with a smaller 53% and 45% who believe that China was the original source of the outbreak.
To a lesser extent, it seems that China may also be the focus of rising concern about large-scale human rights abuses. In last year’s fieldwork, 39% in France chose China as a country they suspect of putting “hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, or more, into mass prison camps, without fair and proper legal process”. This year, that figure has shifted up slightly to 45%. Likewise in countries including Germany (46%, 53%), Denmark (45%, 53%), Spain (21%, 30%), Greece (18%, 29%) and Poland (30%, 36%).
By contrast, the same research shows a palpable improvement in America’s reputation. In fact, various countries portray something of a v-shaped pattern in the data, whereby positive views decrease from 2019 to 2020 and then shift back upwards over the past two years. Hence in Britain, 41% thought the United States had a positive effect on world affairs in 2019, followed by 31% in 2020, 39% in 2021 and 45% this year. In Canada, the respective time-series was 42%, 32%, 42% and now 48%.
We also see some dramatic increases in preference for American leadership, which comes from a tracking question in the study that asks people to choose between America or China as the country they would prefer to be the most powerful force in world politics. This includes a rise of almost 20 percentage points in Germany from 43% who chose America in 2019 to 62% who said the same this year, or a shift from 52% to 67% in Britain. Results further show a more general pattern around the world, which somewhat challenges the aspirations of Beijing to portray itself an alternative source of global leadership: in twenty out twenty-five countries included in this part of the study, by far the larger portion would choose America rather than China as their preference for being the reigning superpower, such as 77% versus 15% in Nigeria, 69% versus 9% in India, 48% versus 23% in Mexico, 59% versus 11% in Brazil, and even 45% versus 19% in Greece, a country that can sometimes stand out within Europe for having stronger antipathies towards American power.
Notwithstanding, there is still good news for China in these results, with an obvious divide between the West and other parts of the world in general sentiment towards it. This includes majorities in nine out of twelve non-Western countries in the sample with positive views of China’s role in the world. In another example of a v-shaped pattern, there are also signs that China’s reputation may be bouncing back after the pandemic in places beyond the West. In Mexico, for example, positive views of China fell from 73% in 2019 to 50% in 2021 but changed direction this year to 59%. In both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the positive portion for this year is 57%, up from 47% and 41% respectively in 2021. Thailand, Kenya and Nigeria show a similar jump of at least 15% over the same period.
For a closing thought, the three African countries in the study also potentially highlight another important tend, in that all three show both high levels of support for other countries helping Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack but also large majorities this year with a positive view of China’s effect on world affairs. Public opinion is often not as binary as the policy debate might suggest. Accordingly in this case, it may be that plenty of people are capable of having both a sympathetic views towards the defence of Taiwan and a favourable one towards China as a powerful force within the current international system, if not as an outright alternative to it.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample sizes were: France=1067; Germany=1183; Sweden=1015; Denmark=1038; Spain=1011; Italy=1007; Greece=1112; Hungary=1006; Poland=1011; Britain=1019; Australia=1005; United States=1054; Canada=1007; Brazil=1065; Mexico=1014; Turkey=1045; Egypt*=1004; Saudi Arabia*=1003; India*=1025; Japan=1074; Indonesia*=1060; Thailand*=1013; Kenya*=1036; Nigeria*=1054; South Africa=1011. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th August–22nd September, 2022. The surveys were carried out online. For those markets labelled *, the figures have been weighted and are representative of the online adult population aged 18+. For other markets, the figures have been weighted and are representative of the adult population aged 18+. There is a margin of error associated with different sample sizes and different distributions of answers. For a 1000 sample, it is +/- 3% at the 95% confidence level. When reporting results for subsamples, the margin of error will be higher than for the total sample, such as up to +/- 6% for a 300 sub-sample.