When the Communists under Mao Zedong took over China in 1949, the rallying cry of critics became, “Who lost China?”  Today, as public opinion has turned decisively more hostile toward China, the question might be: “How did China lose the goodwill of the world?”  

Pew Research Center polling last year reported soaring unfavorable opinions of China – double-digit increases in unfavorable feelings from just a year earlier. In the United States, 67 percent of those surveyed expressed unfavorable views of China; in Europe, 71 percent; in Japan; 86 percent, and in South Korea, 76 percent. 

China’s potential role for the COVID-19 pandemic may be the leading factor shifting public opinion, but human rights and governance have emerged as critical issues, especially the treatment of the minority Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the arrests of democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and the threat of an invasion of Taiwan.   

Previously, the United States and Europe focused on our common economic interests with China and downplayed our differences with the autocratic regime. But there has clearly been a shift, with 70 percent of Americans saying we should focus on human rights over our economic interests.  

Until recently, China had successfully flexed its economic muscle to keep the focus on investment and trade and away from its internal affairs. But its economic policies have also engendered resentment as it extracted a heavy price from foreign companies doing business in China and put its thumb on the scale to favor Chinese companies over foreign competitors.  Today, countries are not only focused on values but looking for a more reciprocal relationship with China in light of its advanced economy.  

The shift toward human rights as a priority has played out dramatically in Europe. In May 2020, the European Union and China agreed to a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, subject to the approval of the EU Parliament. After seven years and 35 negotiating sessions, the deal gave Europe unprecedented access to China’s markets. China acquiesced to Europe’s demands in an attempt to pull Europe closer to its sphere of influence before the new Biden administration could pull Europe away. 

Europe wants to maintain relationships with both the U.S. and China without having to choose one economic heavyweight over the other. But after former President Donald Trump labeled Europe an adversary, it inched closer to China to hedge its bet against an increasingly nationalistic America. Last year, China became Europe’s largest trading partner after the U.S. imposed tariffs on European steel and other goods.  

Europe had previously developed a three-pronged approach to China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival. It hoped it could put blinders on as it focused on these different relationships without its concerns over human rights interfering with its economic relations. But China took offense at this three-part scheme. It sought a relationship based on mutual benefit with neither side interfering with the internal affairs of the other.   

When the EU sanctioned certain Chinese officials for their treatment of the Uyghurs, China retaliated and sanctioned several EU officials. Despite the advantages the investment agreement would give Europe, the EU Parliament decided not to open debate on the agreement until China rescinded sanctions. With public opinion moving against China, it’s unlikely that debate will be opened anytime soon. 

China also remains the largest trading partner of the U.S., despite the increasingly hostile rhetoric coming from both sides.  Our interdependencies with China run deep in trade, investments, scientific collaboration and partnerships on global challenges, such as climate change. A break in those relationships would not be in our interests. 

China sees itself as the rising world power and the U.S. and Europe in decline with failed military interventions and deep internal divisions. China seeks greater domestic consumption, technological and supply chain independence, and global leadership in the industries of the future.  

Popular opinion around attitudes toward China may provide the impetus for democratic countries to exert influence on China if they band together, overcome internal divisions, invest in their competitiveness, and promote democratic values.  

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