Public views about China around the world reveal common strands of ambivalence, anxiety and opportunity, but are volatile as the emerging superpower’s global presence and influence grow.

By Paul Evans, University of British Columbia

Why do Public Attitudes about China Matter Now?

  • Public views about China around the world display common strands of ambivalence, anxiety and opportunity, and are volatile as its global presence, role and influence grow.
  • Public attitudes do not dictate public policy but they help shape and are in turn are shaped by it.
  • After a decade of Conservative rule characterized by a combination of blowing hot and cold and an atmosphere of intermittent engagement and frequent negativity, the Trudeau government is intent on expanding and deepening relations with China. It is encountering a headwind from parts of the public and within its own ranks that reflects heightened sensitivity about a powerful, assertive and authoritarian China that does not share some key Canadian values and institutions (both political and economic) and that is more enmeshed in Canadian life than ever before. This presence is big, on our doorsteps, and widely perceived to be getting bigger at a moment of increasing uncertainty about the liberal world order and our economic and strategic relations with the United States.
  • Canadian policy makers are constrained in moving as quickly or comprehensively on various China-related matters as they feel the national interest warrants, including negotiating some kind of comprehensive free trade agreement, an extradition treaty, expanding the level of two-way human and investment flows and cooperation on a range of global issues including financial architecture, climate change and peace support operations.
  • All of these initiatives demand a careful weighing of interests, trade-offs, costs and benefits that are complicated by public hesitation and resistance. The challenge for the government is not too much of a public push toward expanded relations with China (though some groups and individuals are much smitten by China); it is the negativity factor it needs to manage.

What is “Public Opinion” and How do We Know It?

  • The public attitudes measured in survey research conducted by private research firms, universities, government agencies and political parties. These surveys, at least those publicly available, are the principal focus here.
  • Impressions gathered by elected officials based on correspondence, lobbying and conversation.
  • Expressions in media of multiple kinds.
  • Personal and anecdotal accounts based on life experiences (in my case largely with academics, policy wonks and airplane conversations over 40 years).

Distinctive Features of Canadian Attitudes

  • Canadian views of China have chilled in the past decade, in general terms becoming more unfavourable than our key comparators and allies in the United States, Australia, France and United Kingdom. Alternative explanations for this decline include the impact over a decade of Conservative ambivalence and absence of proactive public messaging as well as real-world changes in Chinese domestic conditions and its more assertive international role.
  • One recurring habit in public discourse and media coverage is a framing of issues as doing trade with China vs. promoting human rights in China. Canada is not unique in seeing promotion of liberal values in China as desirable (our missionary roots run deep); what has been distinctive over time is the intensity and persistence of promoting human rights as a key objective that is in a zero competition with trade and commercial relations.

Dimensions of Concern

The rawest formulation was presented by some of the individuals involved with the early Harper government who described China as “a godless totalitarian country with nuclear weapons aimed at us.” Beneath and behind the statement are several images, perceptions and concerns that frequently surface.

  • The fundamental nature of the Chinese political system that is alternatively described as communist, Leninist, totalitarian, authoritarian, tyrannical, dictatorial; the absence of transparency, accountability and multi-party electoral competition.
  • Specific practices of the Chinese government and Communist Party such as repression of human rights and democracy, treatment of dissidents, absence of due process, treatment of ethnic minorities, religious repression, etc.
  • Dislike of specific foreign policy actions of the Chinese government including military modernization and approach to territorial claims.
  • Social values, customs and practices long embedded in Chinese society including capital punishment, population control, etc.
  • The nature of the Chinese economy including its close links with the Communist Party, corruption, the absence of Western-style corporate organization and governance, the dominant role of state-owned enterprises, their inherently “unfair” advantages.
  • Predictions that the Chinese economy is headed for a hard landing and that the Communist Party and state are destined for collapse or, alternatively, that China is poised to dominate the world.
  • Personal experience with Chinese business practices in China or in Canada.
  • Dislike of Chinese people and direct personal experience with the Chinese state, its agents or society.

Sources of Negativity: The Media Dimension

  • Beyond personal experiences and ideological proclivities, views of China appear to be heavily influenced by media of multiple sorts.
  • In most countries, Canada included, there is an enormous mountain of China-related stories and information and a diverse set of opinions and interpretations.
  • In Canada, no simple generalization about media coverage suffices. But it can be argued that the two major English-language papers and much of the broadcast media have tended to be relentlessly critical of contemporary China, focused most often on its dark sides (of which there are many), and emphasizing the risks and threats that come with deeper interactions.
  • By comparison, Australia has a more vivid and wide-range spectrum of contesting views but with a sophistication and maturity in the debate and a sober sense of conviction that China is an irreversible part of Australia’s world and future. In much of the Canadian coverage there is an underlying assumption that Canada can live in a world without China, would be better off doing so and can only accept deeper interactions with China on our terms. Australians argue their China choices and trade-offs but no longer questioning their necessity; Canadians continue to resist seeing that there are choices to made.
  • The list of issues that put China in a negative light and that have appeared in Canadian media in the past month alone include housing prices and affordability in Vancouver and Toronto, the plight of Canadians under arrest in China, illegal trafficking in animal parts, extradition, import of opioids, purchase of sensitive technology companies, Chinese SOE purchases of Canadian assets, self-immolations in Tibet, the strategic risks of the AIIB and OBOR and the undermining of Canadian values and institutions (donations to political parties, academic freedom at universities, Chinese-language street signs in Richmond). The list goes on.
  • China’s special and durable form of authoritarian capitalism poses multiple challenges to liberal values and Canadian interests. And there are many reasons to be careful and prudent in interacting with China. But rational policy formulation confronts a combination of fear, skepticism, distaste, distrust and hostility that run deeper than specific issues and aggregates into the sum of our fears.

Ottawa’s Response

  • So far the Liberal government has taken a quiet but steady approach to expanding relations with China beyond the brief flurry of publicity and speeches in August and September 2016 surrounding the back-to-back Trudeau visit to China and Li visit to Canada. China was scarcely mentioned in its 2015 election platform; in office, it has not developed or articulated an Asia or China strategy. In the past month the foreign policy statement in the House by Minister Freeland, the Defence Policy Review and the international assistance review did not address China in any significant way. It used a measured tone in its criticisms of China and Chinese behaviour in its response to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 in the South China Sea (it emphasized the need to respect international law without identifying China by name), has demurred from participating in Freedom of Navigation Operations, has sent a steady flow of ministers to China and, with little public fanfare, created a special Deputy Ministers’ committee to coordinate activities.
  • The government appears to be hinting at a new narrative on the key issue of Canadian values and interests, shifting from changing China and expecting it to embrace Western values as a precondition for deep engagement, to something like living with China, seeing China as a major and potentially positive pillar of a shifting global order, and protecting Canadian values and institutions at home rather than actively projecting them into China.

The Recent Survey Results

Making sense of the various public surveys is a messy business, not only because of the differences and incomparability in individual findings but also because of the specific interests and interpretive angles of the sponsoring institutions. Consider the following in the past year and a half.

  • The Nanos poll commissioned by The Globe and Mail in April 2017, the most negative in framing and spin, that found that 90 percent of respondents were to some degree “uncomfortable” with Chinese SOEs having new access to the Canadian economy, more than 80 percent to some degree opposing SOE’s takeovers of Canadian firms without national security tests in a future trade deal, and 66 percent believing that Canada should link human rights in China to FTA negotiations. The pollster summarized it as “a significant cautionary note for the Liberal government as to how Canadians feel about engaging China on a new free-trade agreement.”[1]
  • The Abacus poll also released in April painted a very different picture of the broader take of Canadians on how to relate to China. “The role of China in the world has been changing and so has that of the United States… For many people, China looks like a more stable and predictable power, one that evinces more respect for others and is doing more to raise economic prospects around the world.” It based this on the findings that 61 percent of respondents felt that China was doing more to maintain peace and avoid conflict than the United States. 57 percent felt China was showing a better example of what world leadership should look like, 56 percent that China was doing more to grow the global economy, 54 percent that China was more stable and predictable and 54 percent that China was more respectful of other people in the world.[2]
  • The EKOS poll released the following month, conducted on behalf of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, found that more than 50 percent of respondents felt that in the wake of the Trump election Canada should do more to strengthen its economic relationship with China; that while supporting stronger economic ties with China, 71 percent worry about Canada being affected by economic volatility in China and 64 percent worried that Canada will become more vulnerable to economic and political pressures from the Chinese government, even as 55 percent support a Canada-China FTA, up nine percent from 2016 and 16 percent from 2014.[3]
  • The January 2016 poll conducted by Abacus on behalf of Teck Resources found that 30 percent were supportive of Canada having a closer economic relationship with China, and 24 percent said they don’t think they could “get comfortable with Canada having a much closer relationship with China.” The survey also found that while 28 percent felt that China cannot be trusted as an economic partner, 21 percent felt it could and 51 percent felt it could be trusted as much as any other country. There was a 50–50 split on whether free trade would be good for Canada’s economy. On economic matters, the authors found that 36 percent of the population found that China could be trusted and that free trade will benefit Canada. The key finding, however, was that 46 percent supported the proposition that “I could probably be persuaded to support a closer relationship with China if I knew more about what was involved and why it was in our interests.” Merging the results of several questions, Abacus grouped Canadians into three categories about deeper economic relations with China, FTA included: 36 percent “supportive,” 28 percent “resistant,” and 36% “conditional” dependent on additional information. Conclusion: “In most cases, there is not so much opposition and hesitation — as a desire to be cautious and to be convinced of the merits rather than take a risk.”[4]
  • The APFC’s August 2016 survey found only 11 percent supportive of investment in Canada by Chinese SOE’s, and promoting human rights and democracy a priority. Twenty-three percent were not comfortable with a closer relationship with China, 20 percent supportive and 50 percent “could probably be persuaded to support a closer economic relationship with China if more information was available.” Perhaps most stunning was that 46 percent saw China’s increasing presence in Canada as “a threat to the country’s values and way of life.”[5]
  • Pity the policymaker who seeks a single clear message from the data. In part this is because different polls ask different if overlapping questions. Only the APFC and the CIUA polls offer some consistency over time.

The Pattern

  • China remains controversial and the agenda of issues — bilateral and global — increasingly numerous and complicated. A substantial number of Canadians (somewhere in the vicinity of a third) are opposed to deeper economic relations and a somewhat larger number undecided or conflicted. While Canadians see economic relations with China as increasingly important, the support is not overwhelming. A key finding is that a good number of Canadians in the undecided category might be more positive if they had more information, though it is not clear exactly what that information would be or who would provide it.
  • Support for an FTA has taken a jump forward in the Trump era (during the campaign and after his election) and consideration of the strategic importance of the China vis-à-vis the U.S., and perception of its positive international role, jumping even faster.
  • China may be an increasingly necessary economic power, but there are considerable reservations about exactly what would make for a deeper relationship and residual, if gradually diminishing reservations about FTA negotiations and a lowering of barriers to FDI, especially from SOEs.
  • Human rights and to a lesser extent democracy (fewer questions asked) remain a consistent and dominant concern in Canadian opinion even if it is not exactly clear exactly what rights Canadians have in mind or what they believe are the best means of advancing them.
  • If almost half see China’s presence in Canada as a threat to Canadian values and way of life, there are new dimensions of deeper relations that deserves close attention beyond the economic issues and global significance issues frequently examined. The issue may be shifting from promoting Canadian values in China to a greater focus of concern being protection of Canadian values and institutions at home.

From a government policy perspective, the most direct implications are:

  • The narrative must be rewritten with care and must address human rights issues. It is difficult 
     to detect whether Canadians feel that the Liberal government’s approach on these matters is satisfactory. Canadian interests and the strategic context have changed faster than the Canadian value system, hard as it might be to define it.
  • The importance of identifying and targeting that element of the public that is persuadable or at least receptive to more information in making up their minds about the FTA and related economic issues. Closer analysis of the cross tabs may be helpful in identifying the characteristics of different segments of the supportive, resistant and conditional categories.
  • It is a political calculation whether these results suggest that the government avoid making China a major public issue and instead let other forces -­ disdain for Trump, fear of American protectionism and uncertainty about America’s role in the liberal world order — make the case for deeper collaboration with China far more effectively than an all-out public relations campaign.
  • Importantly, in the 2017 APFC survey almost as many Canadians identified as the top priority collaborating with China on environmental issues as they did pushing China privately or quietly on human rights and democratic reform.

For Further Research

  • From an academic perspective more work and thought are needed, especially work demographic variables. The recent APFC and CIUA offer some thin analysis that suggests seniors, men, university-educated individuals and those who follow news about Asia regularly are more supportive of stronger economic relations between Canada and Asia, including China. Seniors, men, residents of Quebec and Atlantic provinces and those who follow news about Asia are also more supportive of Canada entering into a free trade agreement with China.”
  • A team at UBC is constructing a new survey to be run later this summer that will have a battery of questions, some of them repeating questions in the recent Canadian surveys as well as those conducted by Pew and the Lowy Institute in Australia that will probe further: (a) the extent to which factual primes affect views on the FTA and SOE issues (b) the Trump factor and opinions about power shift (comparative economic and strategic weight and future trajectories) and responsible international leadership © views on a new sets of bilateral issues related to protecting Canadian values and institutions at home (d) respondents’ experiential and information sources influencing their views on China and (e) views of the management of relations by the Trudeau government and other federal parties.

The Objective

  • A better informed and better balanced public discourse about the complexity of China, its strategic importance, specific opportunities and threats in bilateral relations and specific instruments for managing risks that come with deeper and wider interactions.
  • We all agree that a more informed and knowledgeable public and leadership is essential to devising a more sophisticated and successful approach to the very hard matters of advancing both Canadian interests and values as well as playing a positive Middle Power role in the strategic transition currently underway. Senior political leadership and messaging is necessary but not sufficient.

Whatever the immediate political calculations, our intermediate objectives should be to increase the quality and scope of public debate and media commentary, build knowledge and exchanges at multiple levels including universities and educational institutions, and create expert-led, non-partisan, deliberative forums for investigating solutions and initiatives that will strike the public imagination and address the huge challenges that global China presents.


[1], April 2017. The Nanos quote is from the Globe and Mail story by Robert Fife and Steven Chase on 11 April 2017.

[2] 27 April 2017.

[3], May 2017. This figure tracks very closely with the results of a similar poll conducted in April 2016 by the China Institute at the University of Alberta of Albertans’ views of an FTA in which 44 percent expressed support for a bilateral FTA (28 percent were neutral) and 77 percent agreed that “Alberta should take into China’s human rights record into consideration when conducting business in China.”, September 2016.

[4] 20 January 2016.

[5], August 2016.

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