The West’s Limited Narratives

Berlin-based think tank warns against trying to internationally isolate China. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, Beijing is appreciated as cooperation partner and quite popular.

BEIJING/BERLIN (Own report) – A Berlin-based think tank, specialized on China, warns against trying to internationally isolate the People’s Republic, as with Russia. Attitudes towards China diverged widely from “mainstream narratives” in the western world, according to a study by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). It is of major importance to understand how “actors outside the usual grouping of rich, liberal market economies” view the shifting global dynamics, and how they think about Europe. In fact, the Western public’s extremely negative perception of China is generally not shared outside the West. On the contrary, sometimes the People’s Republic enjoys an even greater popularity than the United States. Non-western elites usually appreciate Beijing, because it does not lecture governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America and because the Chinese market and Chinese investments offer huge opportunities. If the EU does not want to fall behind Beijing, it must take vigorous action, according to MERICS.

Bogeyman China

The Berlin-based think tank MERICS (Mercator Institute for China Studies) published its current study in light of the fact that negative views of China have massively increased over recent years in the West and among its close allies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Japan, South Korea), at times reaching record highs. This is documented by a recent Pew Research Center survey of 19 countries including 17 from the West. “Unfavorable views” of the People’s Republic are shared by 87% of the Japanese, 86% of the Australians, 83% of the Swedes, 82% of the US-Americans, 80% of the South Koreans and 74% of the Germans. Only the two non-western countries in the PEW survey are out of line: in Malaysia 60% of the population have “favorable views” of China and in Singapore even 67%.[1] The dramatic deterioration of the perception of China in the West correlates with media reporting, which was exemplarily analyzed in Germany. This recent study on Germany’s leading media’s coverage of the People’s Republic concluded that is was “marked by clichés and stereotypes, some dating back to colonial times,” often portraying China as “being inferior” and leading to the “the perpetuation of stereotypes and fears.”[2]

Against War, Against Sanctions

The MERICS study must also be seen in the context of the experience with the escalating power struggle against Russia. Western powers are currently forced to realize that even though they succeeded in fostering negative perceptions of Russia within their populations, similar to those of China, this, however, does not mean that non-western countries will follow their lead. In the UN General Assembly in early March, the West succeeded in persuading nearly three fourths of the nations to condemn Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. But this has had no practical consequences. Three fourths of all the countries – those outside the West and its closest Asia-Pacific allies – have consistently refused to join the transatlantic war of sanctions against Moscow. ( reported.[3]). MERICS raises the question, of whether the countries that had condemned Russia’s war would – in a comparable case – be prepared to condemn China or even support more extensive measures against Beijing. This is highly doubtful, MERICS assumes, in light of “China’s vastly larger economic ties with much of the world, coupled with its growing role as a security provider” in a large number of countries.[4]

Beijing Rather than Washington

MERICS systematically takes the examples of eight countries – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Indonesia Kenya, Nigeria and Chile – to obtain a more substantiated judgement of the prospects for being able to isolate China, when necessary. First of all, results indicated that in only two of these countries positive views of the USA are more prevalent than of those of China – in Kenya (60, versus 58 percent) and in Indonesia (42, versus 36 percent).[5] No data is available for Kazakhstan. In the five other countries, the People’s Republic is, at times, much more popular than the United States (Turkey, 37 versus 20 percent; Saudi Arabia, 49 versus 37 percent; Chile, 51 versus 39 percent). This corresponds to the Afrobarometer’s most recent statistics, indicating that throughout the countries of Africa, almost two-thirds (63%) of the African population say China’s influence in their country is positive, – more than the case for the United States (60 percent) or even the former colonial powers from Europe (46%).[6] The MERICS summary indicates that China’s positive assessment is based, by no means, on uncritical affection. In Kenya, for example, it was criticized that Beijing had Chinese repressive forces to secure the construction sites of the new Nairobi – Mombasa railway line, which had sometimes been seen as a violation of Kenya’s sovereignty and has been strongly denounced.

With Both Sides

The western powers are not even out front ahead of China among the elites of the eight countries MERICS had polled, on the contrary. In principle, it is considered positive that Beijing does not interfere in the domestic affairs of its cooperation partners, in complete contrast to conditions linked to the USA and the EU’s aid and investments, admits the MERICS analysis. The fact that China’s enormous market offers attractive opportunities and that the People’s Republic is a counterbalance to the United States is also seen as positive. Overall, in most of the countries surveyed, the aspiration prevails that China opens up opportunities for them to enhance their economic and geostrategic standing. Even the People’s Republic’s financing of infrastructure projects, as well as its technical aid in their realizations are everywhere appreciated, along with other Chinese investments and opportunities for intensifying trade with China. In relationship to the escalating tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic, the MERICS paper points out that in the eight countries surveyed, there is the overriding will not to have to take sides between Washington and Beijing, and to be able to cooperate with both, which generally is considered extremely advantageous.

“Geopolitical Alternative”

The MERICS study is skeptical in regards to the idea of trying to force respective countries to choose sides between the West and China. Beijing is not standing idly by, the paper notes; it is reacting to the fact that NATO and its partners in the Asia-Pacific realm are strengthening their ties, by trying to reinforce its own “Network of Friends and Partners.” It is in the process of positioning itself as an important economic partner and as a “geopolitical alternative” to the USA and Europe.

Will and Potential

MERICS offers the advice that the EU, for its part, should become active and “strengthen its role as an economic and security partner.” If it seeks “to remain a relevant geopolitical actor and protect its own interests and security,” it will need to be more energetic in the “shaping of global coalitions.” Berlin and Brussels certainly have the will to do so, which is apparent in recurring efforts to launch new German, or EU influence offenses in Africa[7] and in Latin America.[8] The question, however, on the other hand, is whether Germany and the EU have the power potential sufficient to achieve what they want.


[1] Laura Silver, Christine Huang, Laura Clancy: Negative Views of China Tied to Critical Views of Its Policies on Human Rights. 29.06.2022.

[2] Jia Changbao, Mechthild Leutner, Xiao Minxing: Die China-Berichterstattung in deutschen Medien im Kontext der Corona-Krise. Studien der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung 12/2021. Berlin 2021. See also Feindbild China.

[3] See also Isolate Russia (III) and „Russland isolieren” (IV).

[4] Zitate hier und im Folgenden: Jacob Gunter, Helena Legarda (ed.): Beyond Blocs. Global views on China and US-China relations. MERICS Papers on China No. 11. Berlin, August 2022.

[5] Abgefragt wurde, ob ein Land positiv bewertet wurde oder nicht; Mehrfachnennungen waren möglich.

[6] Josephine Sanny, Edem Selormey: AD489: Africans welcome China's influence but maintain democratic aspirations. 15.11.2021.

[7] See also Struggle for Influence over Africa (II) and Indefinitely Postponed.

[8] See also Die Lateinamerika-Offensive der EU.