The following text is a summary of an international conference held by CEIAS in Bratislava in October 2019. The public event was attended mostly by representatives of ministries and state bodies, experts from universities and think tanks. The summary presents an interpretation of the presentations and discussions from the perspective of the CEIAS.
is a major topic in most domestic political discussion and has also become highly
emotionalized, due to such events as in Hong Kong or Xianjiang. Academics have
argued before that public opinion, and therefore feelings towards certain
countries can influence foreign policy. Therefore, the question arises if
colder attitudes towards China influences politicians and the policy dealing
How the West feels and thinks about China—and why?
firs portion of the event was dedicated to a keynote lecture by professor Peter
Hays Gries, Lee Kai Hung Chair and Director of the Manchester China
Institute at the University of Manchester. Professor Gries delivered a
lecture about public perception of China in Western Europe and USA
What do westerners feel about rising China?
in the west have generally two emotions towards China. The first can be called
‘doom and gloom’, which stands for seeing rising China as a threat. The second
view is that of the ‘land of opportunity’, which is especially present in the
business community, and generally more positive about China. Due to this, the
question arises if the west has a schizophrenic view on China. To come up with
an answer, surveys with nationally representative samples (back in 2014) were
used to collect data on this topic. The data shows that the view of westerners
on China is predominantly negative. The samples from Germany, France and the UK
show that the feeling towards China is generally very cold and the coolest in
Why do we feel these ways?
are several explanations for these negative emotions. Most importantly, the
idea and ideology of liberalism, which unites the West in its fear of dictatorship.
This shared ideology of individual freedom and enlightenment is based in
religion (the Protestants), economics (the capitalist entrepreneur), politics
(the democratic voter) and in society (the rugged individual).
addition, dystopian displays in media, such as 1984, have created a liberal
fear of the state. Taking the survey data into perspective again it can be seen
that the feeling of westerners towards countries correlates with the freedom
score conducted by the Freedom House. These findings certainly remind of the
Kantian theory of ‘democratic peace’ and Hume’s ‘imprudent vehemence’. All
together one can argue that the shared liberalism appears to predispose
westerners to be fearful of non-democracies. This includes China, which most
westerners do not have advanced knowledge of other than it not being a
democracy. Despite this consensus however, there is a divide in second order
ideologies, such as left and right. Data from the US shows that liberals feel
warmer towards countries (with the exception of the US itself and Israel) than
conservatives do. Reasons for this lie in conservative anti-communist
sentiment, religious reasoning and even prejudice to some degree.
Does public opinion shape the West’s China policies?
opinion shapes foreign policy not only in democracies but also in authoritarian
countries. Democracies have to play a two-sided game in foreign policy
discussion where they also have to satisfy the domestic public. This is however
also true for authoritarians in nationalist environments. Historic examples for
this are the pacifist movements in the US during World War I or the pressure to
go to war in the Spanish-American war. This influence has also to be considered
in the topic of rising China.
Perceptions of China among politicians in the V4
second panel of the event focused on the view of China among politicians from
Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The panel presented the
results of a research project, which used various sources, such as interviews,
social media, appearances in media and further.
Hungary interviews with the five major parties concluded that the perception
abroad is that China is an important partner for Hungary, when in reality it is
an economically moderately important partner and only the political relations
play a more important role. (China ranks 14th on the most important
export partners and as fourth most important importer; 80% of trade is still with
EU members, foremost Germany). In Hungary, there is no division in views based
on left or right ideology, only between the government and the opposition.
Despite some light alterations in the opposition all parties agree that there
are opportunities and that being a part of BRI is important but that Hungary
should be cautious about its engagement with China. The governing party Fides
of Orbán however is very enthusiastic about Chinese engagement, and argues,
contrary to the opposition, that human rights shall not be discussed with
Poland, this year marked the 70th anniversary of Sino-polish
relations. Despite this, relations between the two countries are relatively
new. They started in 2011 and with the 2012 announcement of the 16+1
initiative, for which Warsaw was chosen by China. Since then relations
stagnated again, which changed with the internal changes after the 2015
election where the PiS party took over. The party’s priorities of stable
economic development and re-nationalization of Poland’s economic ties with China
led to rising engagement. This changed again with the election of Donald Trump
and the beginning of the US-China trade war. Here Poland’s stance is that if
the ties with China could upset the US, Poland chooses to stand by the US,
especially since the US became a provider of security for Poland after 89.
Other parties have argued the following:
PSL believes that Poland
should become the representative of all of CEE in China.
SLD argues that Poland has a
chance to become real partner for China, but only as member of EU.
Konfederacja dreams of a
permanent Chinese military base in Poland and states that China was able to
outperform Europe because it is not a part of the EU.
these differences, no party has a strategy for polish companies abroad or
Slovakia China is rarely a top political issue. Only due to three events has
China become a dominant topic on the political agenda in the last ten years.
The visit of Hu Jintao in 2009, where fights occurred in front of the parliament,
the meeting between the president and the Dalai Lama in 2016 and the 2019
meeting between the Slovak President and Chinese Foreign Minister where human
right issues were raised. Similar to other CEE countries, China has not a
predominant role in the economy (14th place in export, China is still
the biggest importer with a huge trade deficit; China hast the lowest
investment from all Asian countries). In the political mainstream, there are
two approaches towards China. The current government sees China as economic
opportunity and promotes engagement. The democratic opposition however
recognizes that past developments do not merit to much and that Chinese
investment is linked with political and security risk. This divide between
government and opposition can be seen throughout the issues of BRI and
addressing human rights. In the political environment, the currently governing
parties seem to lose support for the election next year, which makes the future
of Slovak-China relations more questionable.
the Czech Republic China has been a no-priority issue for a long time. The
interest in the topic has been rising since 2013 with the failed
re-establishment of relations with a return of negative sentiment and link to
domestic politics. Economically speaking, China is not an important partner
like in most other CEE countries. By using a questionnaire our researchers
tried to get an overview of the parties’ responses to China. The data shows
that a left-right divide is not explanatory in this case. The views of the
major parties are as follows:
ČSSD acts based on economic
pragmatism, but changed to a realistic approach after the failed restart of
ANO has a fluid ideology
concerning China and is caught up in economic disillusion.
ODS has negative views on
China with an importance on human rights, but also features of economic
Center right parties have long-term
negative sentiment on China with an importance on human rights.
The Pirates are the new flag
carrier of Havel’s value based China policy with an importance on security
KSČM is a supporter of China.
SPD uses China to criticize
the support for further developments has practically disappeared with no
chances of further establishments and the public remains negative about China.