A New Explanatory Factor in Public Opinion towards China
Updated: Apr 7
At Azimuth Social Research, we've been thinking a lot about global public opinion towards China, with special emphasis on countries involved in China's massive global infrastructure investment project, the "Belt and Road" initiative.
Face-to-face, telephone, and internet surveys are all providing streams of new data on public opinion towards China. One interesting study, for example, is based on data from an Indonesian national survey commissioned by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, a local think tank, while another survey of attitudes in select African countries comes from the Afrobarometer platform, which is now regularly asking about attitudes towards China in general, Chinese investment in the local economy, and the Chinese development model.
There are also of course some excellent books based on qualitative or journalistic research, including Howard French's highly readable China's Second Continent, which deals with the Chinese presence in Africa, or David Lampton et al's more academic Rivers of Iron, which focuses on Chinese railroad investment in Southeast Asia.
Not surprisingly, this body of research finds a lot of variation in global public opinion towards China at both the country and individual level. There is by no means unity of opinion, and overall favorability towards China is much higher than a quick scan of mainstream US media would suggest.
In America, the Belt and Road initiative and related projects are often portrayed as part of a grand Chinese conspiracy for world domination. In the countries on the receiving end of Belt and Road investment, however, opinion tends to be more nuanced. China's repossession of major projects such as that of a Sri Lankan port are highly controversial, but these and other incidents have not dominated public opinion across the developing world.
Among all the studies we've seen, one particular analysis stands out for the innovative nature of its investigation. Published by the Pew research center in April 2020, the study pooled all responses from Nigerians asked for their views on China from 2013 to 2016. The Pew analysts then calculated a new independent variable: respondent distance from a segment of the Lagos-Kano Standard Gauge Railway. Construction of this particular segment began in 2013 and was completed in 2016.
The Pew analysts inserted this measure into an econometric model predicting Nigerian public opinion towards China, interacting it with the year in which the question was asked. The results indicated that once the railway segment had been completed, respondents living closer to the railway had a higher opinion of China than those living at a greater distance, controlling for a range of standard factors such as age, gender, education, and more.
The beauty of this finding is the discovery of a new explanatory variable: "physical-distance-to-the-closest-completed-Chinese-infrastructure-project." Moving forward, any new poll of public opinion towards China, or Chinese investment, should include this as a potential explanatory factor. Measurement takes a bit of doing, but it's not overwhelmingly difficult. You ask or record the respondent's geographic location, find the relevant geographical point in a nearby Chinese-funded infrastructure project, compute the distance, and insert that figure into a multivariate regression.
Time will tell whether this finding holds true more generally across time and space, or whether the Pew finding in Nigeria was a one-off exception.
Logically, however, proximity to a successfully completed infrastructure project built with Chinese money, expertise and labor should indeed matter.
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