Attitudes towards China have been declining since 2019
The recent Conservative leadership election saw Sino-British relations put under the spotlight, with both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss promising to take a sterner line with China if elected. But what do Britons think of the UK’s relationship with China?
Attitudes towards China have deteriorated since YouGov started tracking in November 2016. At that time a third of Britons (33%) had a favourable opinion of China, with around half having an unfavourable view (49%). Now the latest data shows that just one in eight Britons (13%) have a favourable view of China, with three quarters (75%) having a negative view.
A quarter of Britons see China as an enemy of the UK, with just one in ten seeing China as an ally or friend of the UK
Just 1% Britons see China as an ally of the UK, with only a further 9% viewing China as a friend. By contrast, a third (34%) believe China to be a rival of the UK, with another quarter (26%) believing China to actively be an enemy.
Most Britons have heard something about both the human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims and the downgrading of democracy in Hong Kong
Some of this hostility may stem from reports of human rights abuses occurring within China. Much criticism has been levelled against China for their treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province, with human rights organisation Amnesty International finding evidence of state organised mass imprisonment and torture. Most Britons (60%) are aware to some degree of reports of the Chinese state’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Four in ten (40%), however, have heard nothing about it.
The Chinese state has also recently passed a national security law in Hong Kong, containing a number of anti-democratic measures that effectively curtail the freedom of the press and end the right to protest. Most Britons have heard at least something about this too (58%).
A majority support sanctions against China, but support wains with the prospect of rising prices
In light of these actions by the Chinese government, some have called for Britain to be less amenable to trade with the state and take a sterner line on human rights abuses, even if this is damaging to the British economy.
Overall, Britons are in principle supportive of imposing sanctions against China in response to human rights violations (53%), even if this has implications for the UK economy, with just 9% taking the opposite view.
However, when faced with the everyday consequences of such a move, support falls. Of all the potential consequences of British sanction on China we posed to the public, Britons are most willing to stomach an increase in the price of consumer goods (53%). However, if sanctions were to cause an economic downturn in the UK, or an increase in the overall cost of living, support falls to 39% and 42% respectively, with around a third (35%) opposed in both cases.
Britons living in working class households (i.e. those in the C2DE socio-economic grade) tend to be less willing to suffer the consequences that sanctions could bring. In the case of an increase in consumer goods, 59% of those in middle class households (ABC1 grade) would support sanctions, versus 45% of working class people.
Likewise, while 48% of those in middle class households support sanctions even if it raised the cost of living, this falls to 34% for those in working class households, and in the case of an economic downturn in the UK those figures are 44% and 34% respectively.
Younger people – those aged between 18-24 – are also less willing to stomach the consequences of UK sanctions on China than their elders.
Although young people would still tend to back sanctions in the event of an increase in the cost of living, with 46% supporting and 36% opposed, this is still a far cry from the 60% of those aged 65 and above who would back sanctions.
However, if the consequence was an overall rise in the cost of living or an economic downturn, more young people would oppose than support sanctions on China. By contrast, Britons over the age of 50 would still tend to support sanctions in these scenarios.