Battle in Print: Attitudes to China

Patrick Hayes, 2 September 2008

Another day, it seems, another headline criticising China. If it’s not Chinese rule in Tibet, it’s repression in the Muslim region of Xinjiang, restrictions on workers’ rights, religious freedom, reproductive rights, frequent use of the death penalty, persecution of dissidents, censorship of the internet, piracy of intellectual property, overuse of the death penalty, their ‘guzzling’ of the world’s resources, or the pollution created by economic development. And it’s not just the media. NGOs like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are intensely critical of China. Western governments, while often arguably moderating their criticisms for economic reasons, also feel the need to add to the criticisms.

In advance of his visit to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, George W Bush caught the Chinese by surprise by speaking out in opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. Gordon Brown followed suit by taking the opportunity during his meeting with Hu Jintao prior to the Olympics closing ceremony to lecture the Chinese president on ‘a number of human rights issues’ during their hour long meeting.

Whether or not such criticisms are legitimate, many overseas Chinese have taken exception to Western attitudes towards China, leading to a surge of pro-China demonstrations earlier this year, reacting – in particular –to the tendency of the Western media to dwell upon the negative aspects of events involving China in the run-up to the Olympic Games. One protester described the experience of being among thousands of students travelling to London to join the procession of the Olympic torch, and then returning home to see news coverage instead obsessing on the handful of pro-Tibetan protesters who disrupted the event. ‘It was as if the torch was just struggling its way through London and it was all about how people were so resentful about it,’ she told the China Daily.

Does this resentment perceived by a Chinese student in London reflect real feeling amongst Westerners in general? An online survey conducted by the Institute of Ideas and launched at the Battle for China conference held in London in July, suggests otherwise. One respondent believed media representation of China is so negative that, ‘the minds of Western people now have this image of China that the Western media can’t risk deviating from without facing criticism’, but of the 124 respondents to the survey, over three-quarters felt the Western media was overly negative about the rise of China. This suggests a more sceptical attitude on the part of at least some of the Western public.

Elaborations on this answer broadly fell into two camps. Some believed the Western media does not single out China per se, but takes a cynical and sensationalist attitude towards ‘absolutely everything’. As one respondent claimed, ‘In China, 60-75% of news on TV or papers is positive, or at the very least non-negative. On the contrary, the West is used to negative news, so we are more accustomed to lots of stories about bad things going on in our world’. The second camp believed the negativity in the media regarding the rise of China reflects a deeper concern about the ‘loss of [the West’s] leadership role’, which manifests itself in a ‘breathtakingly arrogant and hypocritical’ way. For this reason, argued one university lecturer, ‘so many young British people do not really understand what is going on in the largest country in the world, apart from shouting human rights slogans’. She concluded that, ‘It is a shame that the Western media has failed to bridge better understanding between the two worlds and only incited hostility.’

Despite criticisms of the Western media however, a sizable majority of respondents (66%) believed the Olympic Games would serve to improve Western perceptions of China. Furthermore an overwhelming 86% of respondents believed that it was right for China to have been awarded the games. The effort involved in putting together an event on such a scale could, it was believed, not fail to impress. As one British student put it, ‘Although this may express an overly optimistic view of the media, I believe it will be difficult for it to portray the effort gone into the games in a negative light’. A school teacher elaborated further: ‘China seems to embody many of the Olympian ideals, currently lacking in many Western democracies’. This point seems particularly apt in light of the recent comments by Lord Coe that the Beijing Olympics will be the ‘last games of its scale’.

Respect for the ‘Olympian ideals’ of China extend beyond the games. Indeed, even in the face of stories in the British media about China becoming ‘one of the greatest environmental threats the earth has ever faced’, respondents were broadly optimistic about the prospects for the Chinese people. 66% of respondents said that they think it’s possible for 1.3 billion Chinese to have the standard of living currently experienced in the Western world.

Interestingly, explanations given tended to broaden out from China and muse instead upon the resourcefulness of mankind in general. In the face of challenges, people were seen to be ‘creative and industrious’ and ‘the solution, not the problem’. Those opposing the view similarly tended to generalise their responses, one local government officer claiming that, ‘the planet can’t afford for ANY of us to have that [a Western standard of living] in the long term – we’re too wasteful and destructive’.

Despite the considerable challenges China will have to face to continue on its phenomenal growth pattern, almost two thirds of respondents believed it would find ways of being able to do so. Definitions of growth varied, however, and – whilst it was pointed out that GDP growth was likely to slow in percentage terms as the economy matures, respondents often emphasised the capacity of the Chinese people to overcome major obstacles. Even those arguing the growth pattern was likely to slow didn’t appear to doubt this capacity, instead pointing to China’s current dependence on revenue from exports to stagnating Western economies.

Given Western experience of development and the global implications of the rise of China, should the West see itself as being responsible to ensure China develops sustainably? A total of 67% of respondents believed not, arguing that responsibility for the China’s development rests firmly on the shoulders of the Chinese. Indeed respondents were suspicious about those who took held this view, one claiming that sustainability is being used as ‘an excuse for the West to insinuate itself into China’s affairs’.

Respondents insisted that ‘China is not a child’, and suggested the idea that the West should hold China’s hand as it develops was both patronising and lacking in reciprocity. The West should be allowed to voice its concerns about China’s development, it was suggested, but the real responsibility should be to set an example in terms of democracy and human rights that would inspire China and the rest of the world to follow, instead of lecturing China about what it should do, or meddling in its affairs.

Opinions were divided as to whether Western countries should take every opportunity to criticise China on its human rights record. 53% disagreed with this. Attempts by Western countries to criticise China were broadly seen to be hypocritical, given both the US and Britain’s history of human rights abuses, of which many examples were given. Furthermore, numerous respondents didn’t believe such criticisms would be effective anyway, and some suggested continual Western criticism of China could well serve to fan the flames of Chinese nationalism, hindering progress on human rights as much as aiding it. Others, though, believed that because human rights were universal, they should transcend national boundaries. As a result, the West should feel ‘obliged’ to criticise China, and ‘if any party should pressurise China it can only be governments’.

Strikingly, the majority of respondents believed that China was going to have a major impact on the world order in the 21st century. 89% of respondents believed that China either already is, (42%) or would become (48%), a superpower. Those believing that China was becoming a superpower typically suggested this would take place within the next 10-20 years. Despite this threat to US hegemony, respondents on the whole believed China’s rise would be a peaceful one. 71% said that they didn’t think China’s rise would be a threat to world peace. China was seen to be a relatively peaceful nation with no track record of aggression towards, or interference with other countries (given that it claims the disputed territories Tibet and Taiwan are part of China itself) to suggest the Chinese would begin to take a bellicose approach in the future.

Respondents had less faith in the West to respond peacefully to China’s rise, and anticipated that if hostilities were to take place, it would be likely that they would be initiated by the US, threatened by the change in the balance of power. The economic dependence on the US by China was cited as a main factor as to why this is unlikely, however. Respondents pointed to the fact that China had enough difficulties to face internally, such as unemployment, rising numbers of protests and regional unrest.

These internal problems, many argued, would be the factor that led China to become a democracy. Indeed despite Chinese claims that China will defy the assumption underpinning the Washington consensus that democracy is a precondition for economically developed countries,  62% of respondents believed that China would become a democracy. Common reasons given were that open markets and greater prosperity will lead to a demand for greater individual freedom. This demand was thought likely to be a gradual one, however, and few saw the Chinese regime becoming more democratic any time soon. Others were at pains to emphasise that Chinese democracy is unlikely to resemble the democracy that currently exists in the West, with demography and differences in Chinese Confucian philosophy the key reasons cited for this. It was of fundamental importance, said one respondent, that any development towards democracy should happen organically, and it will only happen if the West gives China sufficient ‘breathing space’.

While ‘China-bashing’ is popular amongst the Western media and elites, the responses to this survey suggests that such crude views are not commonplace among the British public. Few would suggest the Chinese regime is in any way ideal at the moment. As the survey results show, however, there is a strong belief that the West should respect China’s autonomy and refrain from interfering. Indeed such interference, be it regarding human rights or sustainable development, was broadly seen to be hypocritical, or an attempt by Western powers to intrude into China’s affairs.

As one respondent put it, the Chinese ‘will look to us and see how well we do with our own efforts’. Rather than engaging in ‘China-bashing’, therefore, the West would do better to focus on getting its own house in order. Instead of preaching to the Chinese about how their country should develop, the West should focus on its own development if it is to offer anything the Chinese and other emerging economies will aspire towards.


Some of the themes discussed in this essay will be explored further at the Battle for Prosperity strand at the Battle of Ideas in London on Saturday 1 November 2008.


Summary of findings from the Institute of Ideas survey “The rise of China: threat or opportunity?”
Institute of Ideas, 8 August 2008

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