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Essentially, the people of China think twice as many people in the world like their country as actually do. This isn’t a gap; it’s a chasm. And the information bubble around the Chinese people explains a lot.
Consider the Chinese reaction to the Olympic torch protests this spring. More shock than anger, the sentiment underlying the people’s responses was clear: How could foreigners behave so badly toward a country as loved and respected as China? An official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs mournfully told me after the London and Paris protests in April: “China is smiling at the world, but the world is not smiling back.” She stressed how hurt the feelings of the Chinese people were by protests of Beijing’s human rights practices and its policy toward Tibet. Yet polling before the protests found widespread disapproval of Chinese policies toward Tibet in countries as diverse as India, South Korea, the United States and Germany.
The empty Beijing hotel rooms and the lower-than-usual interest in the Games outside China are attributable to more than the strict visa policies and security measures that have discouraged travel to Beijing. A year ago, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of Americans surveyed had little or no interest in attending the Games. China’s image (which was not helped by its decision this week to revoke the visa of Olympian Joey Cheek) could affect the size of the international TV audience for the Games. The people in developed countries who think it was a mistake to award the Olympics to Beijing (43 percent of Americans, vs. 41 percent who told Pew it was the correct decision) are less likely to watch.
The fact that the Chinese people think the world loves China helps explain why it is so difficult to persuade Beijing to address human rights and other issues. The Chinese people, after all, see no need for changes to improve the country’s image. In contrast, polls have shown that Americans are aware that the United States’ image overseas has been badly damaged in recent years, and there is widespread agreement that work must be done to improve that image. In China, the Communist Party controls most of the information to which people have access, and that information does not include material showing how unpopular the country has become.
If the Chinese eventually come to understand how the world sees their country, they will ask why its image is so poor. They will learn, then, that there is concern about China’s economic growth and its impact on Western jobs and on the environment, as well as concern about China’s military expansion.
But most striking to the average Chinese may be the widely held view that their government does not respect personal freedoms. Majorities in 12 of 23 countries (including all of the top medal winners in the Athens Games except Russia) believe the Chinese government does not respect individual rights. In 10 countries, at least two-thirds hold that opinion. Only in four countries do a majority think the Chinese government respects personal freedoms.
It is not known whether the Chinese people think their government respects human rights: Pew wasn’t allowed to ask this question in China.
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John Kamm – The Washington Post
Copyright The Washington Post