World

China and the U.S.: Competing for Political Influence

by Ian T. Brown and Tao Wu

Leadership in both nations face legacy of low global approval

This is the second in a two-part series on the race for global influence between China and the U.S. The first part assesses perceptions of Chinese economic strength and explores the growing gap between Chinese income in urban and rural areas. The second part presents approval ratings of Chinese and American leadership in more than 145 countries.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Between 2006 and 2008, the United States sought to maintain its superpower status with President George W. Bush at the helm. China, too, hoped to grow its own global reputation under the leadership of President Hu Jintao. During that period, Gallup asked respondents in more than 145 countries whether they approved or disapproved of the leadership of the United States and China. The results showed that both nations drew relatively low approval ratings in several world regions, and even from their own backyard.

China and the U.S. Floundering in Global Political Influence

Chas Freeman, a political theorist, argues that a nation's power is determined by what other nations and individuals perceive its power to be. Perception may count as heavily as actual capabilities. Globally, the U.S. and China's leadership had statistically similar median approval ratings of 34% and 39%, respectively.

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These approval percentages were roughly on par with median approval of the United Kingdom's and France's leadership (37% and 40%, respectively) during the same period. But disapproval percentages tell a different story. A median of 24% of respondents worldwide disapproved of China's leadership. While this is again similar to the 21% median disapproval for British and French leadership, it is lower than the 35% median disapproval of American leadership. Unlike their views of the U.S., worldwide, people are much more likely to approve than to disapprove of Chinese leadership.

Regional Effects: Love Thy Neighbor?

At the regional level, similarities and differences of opinion regarding the leadership of China and the U.S. are more specific. Only in sub-Saharan Africa did a majority of respondents approve of American and Chinese leadership. Approval percentages for China and the U.S. were statistically similar in Europe (median approval was 18% and 22%, respectively) and in Asia. American leadership had statistically higher median approval ratings in the Americas, while Chinese leadership had a much higher approval rating in the Middle East/North Africa region (median of 41% vs. a paltry 14% for American leadership).

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Gallup collected data between 2006 and 2008, during George W. Bush's second term, so the American leadership ratings reported here largely reflect an evaluation of his policies. In 2006-2007, the BBC polled across 25 countries to measure views of the Bush administration's handling of international issues, ranging from the war in Iraq and the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees to global warming. All met with sharp disapproval figures. It is unclear at this early stage in the Obama presidency what effects his new leadership is having on approval of American leadership abroad.

The BBC has not yet done a similar poll on how the Chinese government handles an array of policy issues. But if the country's emerging global political reputation continues to rise, it can eventually expect such scrutiny. The global median percentage of respondents who had no opinion about Chinese leadership, 29%, was higher compared with 21% for the United States. Growing international renown for China will likely mean more respondents will either approve or disapprove of the country's policies.

China Moving Forward

Ultimately, however, if China aspires to a more prominent global political status, it must attract more global belief that the country is capable of achieving that position. Gallup found that, among residents in 13 Asian countries, only in Bangladesh, Laos, and Singapore did at least half of respondents in 2007 think China will replace the U.S. as the leading superpower in at least the next 50 years or less.

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Seventy percent of respondents in the Philippines and 43% in Cambodia said China will not replace the United States.

While the U.S. began the year with a leadership change, Hu will continue to lead China through 2009. Domestically, he continues to face social discontent from issues such as unequal wealth distribution and high health care costs. Internationally, he must address criticism of China's human rights practices and environmental degradation. Thus, if China feels that international influence in concentrated between the G2 -- China and the U.S. -- it must withstand the same close examination that the U.S. has long faced.

The World Welcomes Obama

President Barack Obama pledges to renew America's mission of providing global leadership through common security and humanity. The challenge is a daunting one. But Obama enjoyed significant worldwide favor when he was elected. During the 2008 American presidential election, Gallup asked respondents around the world who they personally wanted to see elected president of the U.S. Overall, 24% chose Obama, compared with 7% who chose John McCain (to note, 69% of respondents did not express a preference). Now in office, among Obama's most salient orders of business is deciding how to work with an economic giant, aspiring to global political stardom, half a world away.

Survey Methods

Results for global approval percentages are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted throughout 2006, 2007, and 2008. Randomly selected sample sizes typically number at least 1,000 residents, aged 15 and older, in the 148 countries polled. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

Surveys conducted in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam between March and September 2007, with maximum margin of sampling error ranging between ±3.0 and ±3.7 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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