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Blinded By the Firewall

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By John Kamm
Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Chinese people, it seems, are among the most satisfied on Earth. More than 80 percent told the Pew Research Center that they are satisfied with the country's economy and overall direction, and 65 percent think the government is doing a good job. Ninety-six percent think the Olympics will be a success, and 93 percent believe the Games will improve the country's image. Three-quarters think China will win the most gold medals. Even accounting for distortions that arise in polling in authoritarian states, the numbers are impressive: China is brimming with optimism.

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Three in four Chinese think the world likes China, while only one in 10 thinks foreigners don't like the country. More than 80 percent believe China takes other countries' interests into account when formulating foreign policy. Just 3 percent think China's economic growth has a negative effect on other countries. Only 1 percent knew a lot about the recall of Chinese products for quality and safety reasons.

Pew's Global Attitudes Survey of public opinion in 24 countries, released in June, makes clear that international opinion toward China is very different from what people in China think it is.

Excluding results from China, the mean "favorable" rating for China in 21 countries for which tracking data are available is 46 percent, and in 15 of these countries China's favorability rating declined this year from last. Also in 15 countries, more people believe that China exerts a bad influence on their country than think it exerts a good influence. Across all countries in the poll, only 30 percent believe China takes the interests of other countries into account. Knowledge of problems with Chinese products is widespread.

Other polls reveal a similar disconnect between how the Chinese think the world views China and how other countries actually view it. A recent BBC survey found that 90 percent of Chinese believe China's global influence is positive. The average opinion in the 23 countries for which tracking data is available was 47 percent.

Essentially, the people of China think twice as many people in the world like their country as actually do. This isn't a gap; it's a chasm. And the information bubble around the Chinese people explains a lot.

Consider the Chinese reaction to the Olympic torch protests this spring. More shock than anger, the sentiment underlying the people's responses was clear: How could foreigners behave so badly toward a country as loved and respected as China? An official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs mournfully told me after the London and Paris protests in April: "China is smiling at the world, but the world is not smiling back." She stressed how hurt the feelings of the Chinese people were by protests of Beijing's human rights practices and its policy toward Tibet. Yet polling before the protests found widespread disapproval of Chinese policies toward Tibet in countries as diverse as India, South Korea, the United States and Germany.

The empty Beijing hotel rooms and the lower-than-usual interest in the Games outside China are attributable to more than the strict visa policies and security measures that have discouraged travel to Beijing. A year ago, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of Americans surveyed had little or no interest in attending the Games. China's image (which was not helped by its decision this week to revoke the visa of Olympian Joey Cheek) could affect the size of the international TV audience for the Games. The people in developed countries who think it was a mistake to award the Olympics to Beijing (43 percent of Americans, vs. 41 percent who told Pew it was the correct decision) are less likely to watch.

The fact that the Chinese people think the world loves China helps explain why it is so difficult to persuade Beijing to address human rights and other issues. The Chinese people, after all, see no need for changes to improve the country's image. In contrast, polls have shown that Americans are aware that the United States' image overseas has been badly damaged in recent years, and there is widespread agreement that work must be done to improve that image. In China, the Communist Party controls most of the information to which people have access, and that information does not include material showing how unpopular the country has become.

If the Chinese eventually come to understand how the world sees their country, they will ask why its image is so poor. They will learn, then, that there is concern about China's economic growth and its impact on Western jobs and on the environment, as well as concern about China's military expansion.

But most striking to the average Chinese may be the widely held view that their government does not respect personal freedoms. Majorities in 12 of 23 countries (including all of the top medal winners in the Athens Games except Russia) believe the Chinese government does not respect individual rights. In 10 countries, at least two-thirds hold that opinion. Only in four countries do a majority think the Chinese government respects personal freedoms.

It is not known whether the Chinese people think their government respects human rights: Pew wasn't allowed to ask this question in China.

The writer is founder and executive director of theDui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco human rights group.


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