In a speech delivered in June 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged his senior officials to enhance their efforts to make the country more “credible, lovable and respectable”. Clearly, China has a long way to go in making itself “lovable”, judging by recent opinion polls released by the well-known Pew Research Center, which recorded a drastic decline of China’s image among its pool of selected countries.
Of course, a caveat is that countries selected for Pew’s surveys are generally affluent countries in the developed world and cannot be considered as the authoritative “international opinion”. On the flip side, in the newly released African Youth Survey 2022 which polled African youth in 15 countries, China was evaluated favourably overall. 76% of the respondents agreed that China has a positive influence in Africa.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has been conducting an “elite survey” since 2019 which has thrown up a mixed picture for China. In its 2022 report, for instance, China was noted for its contribution in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and was also recognised as the most influential economic and strategic power in the region. However, more respondents were worried rather than welcoming of China’s strong economic and strategic influences, and few had confidence in China to play a positive role in providing regional leadership. Variations among the member states of ASEAN should be noted too, with the surveyed elite in Cambodia and Laos generally more positive of China’s role in the region, in contrast to their counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Along ethnic lines?
As useful as it is, the ISEAS survey does not tap into public sentiments, which may or may not be in line with the “elite” perceptions. To gauge the full spectrum of how the public view China in Malaysia, in March 2022, Merdeka Center, a reputable public opinion polling agency in Malaysia, in collaboration with the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, carried out a comprehensive nationwide survey on Malaysian perceptions towards China. This was the second collaboration between Merdeka Center and the Institute of China Studies, after the two carried out a similar survey in April 2016.
The 2022 poll result shows, somewhat surprisingly, that China’s image has improved slightly from the time of the earlier 2016 survey. The total percentage of the respondents that had a “favourable” impression of China increased from 35% in 2016 to 39% in 2022. There are two caveats, however, in interpreting this result.
... only the ethnic Chinese stand out as having a strongly “favourable” view towards China at 67%, and the “unfavourable” view among the ethnic Chinese is only a negligible 3%.
First, a 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center actually showed that 78% of the Malaysian respondents held favourable views of China. Hence 35% in 2016 or 39% in 2022 seems to indicate a drastic decline of “favourable” views among the Malaysian public.
However, the difference in the Pew and Merdeka Center-Institute of China Studies surveys lie in the fact that the poll run by the latter provided three answerable options to the question “How would you describe your overall impression of China as a country?”: “favourable”, “neutral”, and “unfavourable”. In contrast, the Pew survey provided a binary (“favourable” versus “unfavourable”) option which forced the respondents to really make a choice.
In the Merdeka Center-Institute of China Studies poll, up to 45% of the Malaysian public actually answered “neutral”, while 12% responded “unfavourable.” The category of “neutral” is curious because the respondents could lean either way if they were asked to make a choice.
In contrast, none of the other ethnic groups had a majority holding a “favourable” view.
Second, the overall improved image of China masks a more complicated picture — that impressions are quite divided among the major ethnic groups in the country. Among the five ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese, Indians, Muslim Bumiputera and Non-Muslim Bumiputera — the latter two categories include mostly the ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak), only the ethnic Chinese stand out as having a strongly “favourable” view towards China at 67%, and the “unfavourable” view among the ethnic Chinese is only a negligible 3%.
Other factors come into play
In contrast, none of the other ethnic groups had a majority holding a “favourable” view. Among the Malay respondents, 28% had a “favourable” view, 50% “neutral”, and 17% “unfavourable”. The Indian respondents registered the highest in terms of an “unfavourable” view towards China (23%).
The increase of negative perceptions towards China by the ethnic Indians was also the most pronounced among all ethnic groups, with 56% of Indian respondents saying that their impression of China had declined in the past two years. As for the Muslim and non-Muslim Bumiputera categories, their views towards China are quite similar, with majorities having “neutral” view, slightly more than 30% were “favourable”, and around 6% “unfavourable”.
Across all ethnic groups, the majority of those who had personal experiences in China came back with a better impression of China.
Age, income level, and educational level also have some impacts — China’s image improves slightly as it moves towards the older, higher income, and higher education categories, but the ethnic factor is clearly the most discernible factor here. Clearly, if one takes away the ethnic Chinese citizens of Malaysia, China’s image in Malaysia would be pretty unimpressive.
That the ethnic Chinese tend to have a more favourable view towards China is not surprising in one sense, but it is incorrect, or even dangerous, to simply conclude that this is simply the ethnic Chinese extending their co-ethnic sentiments towards China.
The 2022 survey also asked respondents whether they have had personal experiences in China (such as visiting the country as tourists or studying there) and whether such experiences improved their impression of China. Across all ethnic groups, the majority of those who had personal experiences in China came back with a better impression of China.
Among all ethnic groups, the ethnic Chinese naturally have more opportunity and reasons to visit China and find it convenient to do so. This is, in a way, natural and a similar rationale in terms of Malays/Muslims traveling to Muslim countries in the Middle East and likewise for the Indians to India.
In total, 70% of Malaysians view Malaysia and China having a good relationship... China’s vaccine diplomacy helped improve its image significantly.
Vaccine diplomacy helps
Despite the ethnic divide, a majority of all ethnic groups agree that Malaysia-China relations are good and cordial, and have improved from the past two years. In total, 70% of Malaysians view Malaysia and China having a good relationship.
Consistent with the ISEAS elite survey, China was acknowledged as the country that provided the most assistance to Malaysia during the Covid-19 pandemic. An online survey conducted from July to September 2021 by USCI University’s Poll Research Centre in Malaysia also showed that Malaysian perceptions toward China and Chinese companies improved after vaccine cooperation between both countries. All these data pointed to the fact that China’s vaccine diplomacy helped improve its image significantly.
In addition, with the exception of the ethnic Indian respondents, a majority of the respondents in all ethnic categories agree that China’s investments in Malaysia have a positive impact on the country, and that Malaysia should participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, either “actively” or “carefully”.
Up to 40% and 17% of the Indian respondents have negative views of China’s investment in Malaysia and the Belt and Road Initiative respectively, making this ethnic community the most dubious about China’s economic impact in Malaysia.
Hence, China has a divided image among Malaysians, notably across ethnic lines. Although partly natural, this is not necessarily healthy, as it could reinforce the ethnic fault lines in Malaysian society. China would be well advised to address its shortcomings among the non-Chinese populations.
In addition, Malaysia’s government policy towards China is one of maintaining positive ties and deriving benefits (economic or otherwise) from engagement with China. This approach is, overall, largely supported by the majority of the Malaysians as well.
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