Europeans are starting to feel a little bit better about China

“The enemy is the virus, not the people.”
“The enemy is the virus, not the people.”
Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo
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Europeans’ views of China dropped to historic lows last year. It’s not hard to see why: As the pandemic spread, and people were stuck at home with nowhere to go, the drumbeat of news coverage about China was almost entirely negative.

The Chinese government was accused of being slow to respond to the virus, while some EU nations blamed Chinese companies for sending them faulty masks and Covid-19 tests. Chinese diplomats targeted journalists, researchers, and governments who criticized China’s pandemic response. In one notorious example, the Chinese embassy in France accused care home staff of deserting their posts and leaving seniors to die. (It later said the comment did not refer to France.)

While it’s too soon to say for sure, new data from a survey conducted by Pew Research Center and published today (June 30) indicates that, as lockdowns end across most of Europe, public opinion of China is improving. This could affect the outlook for relations between Beijing and Brussels, which have been strained since the start of the pandemic.

China’s relationship with the EU

Aside from criticism of China’s pandemic response, the Chinese government and many EU member states also quarreled over questions of human rights, diplomacy, and business. The EU sanctioned Chinese officials accused of facilitating human rights violations against religious minorities. In response, China sanctioned European researchers, think tanks, parliamentarians, and an entire subcommittee of the European Parliament. Several European countries also banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from supplying them with 5G technology due to national security risks.

China has worked hard in recent years to make friends and gain influence in the EU, which it sees as a counterbalance to the US. The big question was whether the unprecedented drop in public opinion of China in the EU was a temporary blip tied to the pandemic, or whether it was the beginning of a long-term trend.

The Pew survey

Pew surveyed a nationally representative sample of 16,254 adults in 17 countries or territories between March and May 2021. The chart below shows that, in 2021, unfavorable opinions of China stayed constant or decreased in every European country for which 2020 data were available:

There are some important caveats: While Europeans’ views of China are less unfavorable this year than last year, they are mostly not back to their pre-pandemic levels. Unfavorable opinions of China are still very high, and much higher than unfavorable opinions of the US, which has regained popularity among Europeans since the election of Joe Biden, according to the same survey.

While it’s impossible to know what caused the shift in public opinion of China, other data in the Pew report bolster the theory that it is improving as the pandemic ebbs and China’s own pandemic response improves.

As Quartz’s Mary Hui explains, China “has largely managed to eliminate the coronavirus” while rolling out a successful vaccine program at home, and donating millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines globally. When asked whether China did a good job in handling the pandemic, the share of Europeans who said yes increased by eight to 21 percentage points (depending on the country) compared to 2020.