Beyond food and toys, China struggles with its global reputation

From climate change to Darfur, public opinion polls reveal a global unease with the growing superpower.

As China prepares to celebrate its emergence as a global power at next year's Olympic Games, a rash of recent American and international opinion polls suggest that the Asian giant faces an uphill battle to convince the world it is worthy of its new status.

And it is more than just a question of food or toys.

Beijing's task is made harder, say Chinese and foreign analysts, because the ruling Communist Party has so far failed to learn the new ropes of international public diplomacy.

Chinese officials are accustomed to traditional links with their diplomatic counterparts abroad. They have little experience coping with the single-issue advocacy groups that have sprung from civil society in the West to shape the international agenda and influence public opinion on questions ranging from climate change to Darfur.

"It is a great problem," says Shi Yinhong, a prominent foreign-affairs expert at Beijing's Renmin University. "China has no experience with this. We are weak at dealing with diverse nongovernmental entities. The government machine is not capable of dealing with such groups."

Nor has it proved very successful in dealing with the sort of novel challenge that this summer's food and toy safety scandals have posed to China's international image, according to the polls.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey in July found that 65 percent of Americans had very little or no confidence in Chinese food products. Zogby International reported last month that 72 percent of Americans did not believe Chinese claims that the US is exaggerating the risks.

But China's image problem is deeper than the issue of product safety. Even before the recent scandals broke, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a downturn in Americans' attitudes toward China was mirrored in Europe and elsewhere.

Only 42 percent of Americans had a favorable attitude to China in May 2007, Pew found, down sharply from 52 percent at the same time last year. 49 percent of the British public was favorable, against 65 percent in 2006, while favorable French and German majorities in 2006 had shrunk to minorities this year.

Indeed, mistrust of China is one of the few international issues on which Europeans and Americans concur, according to a German Marshall Fund poll released last week: 54 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Europeans said they saw China as more of a threat to their jobs and economic security than an opportunity for new markets and investment.

A study released in June by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, meanwhile, found that in only four of 17 countries polled did a majority of respondents trust China to act responsibly in world affairs.

In the past, China's occupation of Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and Beijing's belligerence toward Taiwan were the darkest stains on the country's international image.

Today, different issues put further strain on China's relations with the rest of the world, such as its ballooning trade surplus, charges of currency manipulation, the loss of Western jobs to low-wage Chinese factories, widespread use of the death penalty, greenhouse-gas emissions – soon to top the world charts – and persistent human rights abuses.

"Now, China attracts much more diverse attention from all over the world, so its image is complex," says Professor Shi. "China's adaptation to these new issues still leaves much to be desired in Western eyes," he acknowledges.

The spate of negative news reports coming out of China on such topics over the past year or so has taken a toll. Whether it is The Daily Show host Jon Stewart joking about Chinese child laborers applying lead paint to toys for American children to eat, labor union leaders bemoaning the loss of American jobs, or presidential hopefuls berating China's trade policy, unfavorable images of China "are already very much part of American perceptions," says David Zweig, who heads the Center for China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.

Though Chinese leaders are clearly aware of their image problem, "it is not the way the Chinese do business to take bold steps," says Bates Gill, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They move quietly in small steps behind the scenes," which does not impress foreign publics, he adds.

The Olympic Games, however, are providing a spur to action on at least one front, as Chinese diplomats try to head off international protests against Beijing's support for the Sudanese government that threaten to mar the Games.

Last week in Washington, Beijing's point man on Africa, Liu Guijin, met for the first time with representatives of the "Save Darfur Coalition," an activist group that has harshly criticized China's policy toward Sudan in the past. After the meeting, the coalition issued a statement applauding China's recent efforts to create a peacekeeping force in Darfur and urging Beijing to do more.

Dan Lynch, who teaches international relations at the University of Southern California, says it is "hard to know" if initiatives such as Mr. Liu's represent "fundamental changes or tactical concessions in the year before the Olympics."

Either way, he argues, "the Chinese Communist Party is going to have increasing problems managing its own image as the global civil society becomes more important in setting the global agenda. It finds the very concept of civil society hard to deal with."

Nevertheless, Shi says he believes that senior Chinese officials are beginning to understand how to address foreign public opinion. "The problem is that Western publics have less patience than Western governments," he says. "That makes things very difficult for China."

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