China's new economic power fans fear, BBC poll finds

By Andrew Walker
Economics correspondent, BBC World Service

image captionThe value of China's currency is a major source of concern for many nations

Public concern is growing about China's economic power, according to a poll conducted for the BBC World Service.

The survey was carried out by the international polling firm GlobeScan/PIPA among more than 28,000 people in 27 countries.

It reveals that the respondees who say that China becoming more powerful economically is a bad thing have increased substantially.

The concerns are found across a number of China's key trading partners.

They are especially prominent among wealthier nations.

Compared to BBC World Service polling in 2005, negative views of China's growing economic power rose - and are now in the majority - in the US, France, Canada, Germany and Italy.

Negative views also grew significantly in countries such as the UK and Mexico but remain outnumbered by positive views in those countries.

But across the survey as a whole, China was still viewed positively.

Across all countries polled, an average of 50% expressed a positive view of China's economic power, while 33% were negative.

The two nations with the most positive views of China's economic growth were in Africa - Nigeria (82%) and Kenya (77%).

Indeed positive views were in the majority in all five African countries surveyed.

Across the developing nations polled, positive views of China were more numerous than negative ones - with the exception of just one country, Mexico.

'Psychologically unsettling'

So what is behind these feelings about China's growing economic weight?

The survey does not tell us for sure, but there are some obvious candidate explanations.

In the period since the earlier poll - in 2005 - the world has been through an episode called the great recession, a result of the financial crisis.

The developed world was hard hit. The rebound now underway in the global economy is led by developing countries, notably China.

The recovery in the rich nations by contrast is more sluggish. The rise in unemployment caused by the recession is likely to take years to reverse.

Tom Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist and Pullitzer Prize winner, told the BBC: "there's no question that China's rise, coinciding with a sense of stagnation and paralysis among many of the leading western democracies, is psychologically unsettling".

Trade issues

There is also a very specific economic issue, and that does emerge in the BBC survey.

People were asked if they think China trades fairly with other countries.

Those saying China is unfair were above 50% in Japan, South Korea, Germany and Italy. In the US, the figure was 45%, compared with 24% saying that it was fair.

The particular policy that has attracted so much attention, in the media and in business, is China's approach to its currency, holding its value down by intervening in the foreign exchange market.

Critics, and there are many of them, say that gives Chinese industry an unfair competitive advantage.

Tom Friedman is particularly caustic about this policy: "That's part of a broader concern of people which is that China is still in many ways a freeloader on the international system. It's not a stakeholder."

Regional view

And what about the more positive view in the developing world?

In some countries especially in Africa, China has been investing heavily.

That brings jobs and infrastructure, though critics do see it as a grab for African resources, especially its energy and metals.

Perhaps some also welcome the sight of a developing nation emerging as an increasingly serious challenger to the rich world.

In some business circles, even among those who criticise China's policies, many nonetheless see the country as an opportunity.

More than a billion consumers are going to buy more goods and services as their living standards rise and Chinese firms will not be able to supply everything.