This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...


China’s footprint in the Middle East has grown significantly over the past two decades. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping subordinated foreign policy to the domestic needs of economic development and growth, China’s sought to secure reliable energy imports to help sustain that process. As a primary supplier of oil and gas, the Middle East was an important region in this regard, especially after 1993 when China became a net energy importer.[1]

Since then, China has sought to expand its ties with the region’s states in order to advance its commercial and investment interests. Chinese companies have signed business deals not only to ensure regular fuel supplies, but also to develop existing and new energy sources. China has tapped into the Gulf monarchies’ sovereign wealth funds while proposing to direct its own finance and capital towards the region, in the form of infrastructure projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[2]

China’s widening and deepening relations with the region has coincided with a change in the international environment. For much of the post-Cold War period, the U.S. was the hegemonic power in the region. Over the past decade however, American influence has been in relative decline. The U.S. position in the region has been undermined by its inability to end the war against terrorism in Afghanistan or to provide security in Iraq following its 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. As a result, space has opened up for regional and external powers to exercise influence, leading to a more multipolar Middle East.

Given these developments then, what are the views of Middle Eastern publics in relation to these changing dynamics and especially China’s role and growing presence in the region? At first glance, such questions may seem superfluous. The highly authoritarian nature of Middle East politics suggests little space for public opinion to guide policy and policy makers. However, the region is currently in a state of transition. Since 2011, several cross-cutting conflicts have emerged between and within states, the latter between incumbent regimes and political parties, movements and even societies at large.[3]

Demands for change led to the removal of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen followed by counter-revolutionary efforts in Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen. Although counter-revolution has dominated the past half-decade, it is by no means certain that this phenomenon will last; hence, the importance of understanding what the public thinks. China’s increasingly extensive diplomatic, commercial and cultural activities in the Middle East has drawn this distant and unfamiliar country into the daily lives of the people of the region to a degree that is unprecedented and likely irreversible. This, then, begs the question: What views do the people of the Middle East hold regarding this rising global power and relative “newcomer” to the region?

Finding suitable data to attempt to address this question can be challenging. The authoritarianism of the region’s regimes has made it difficult to conduct public opinion surveys. Given that intelligence agencies are ever on the lookout for signs of dissent, respondents may self-censor while surveyors struggle to find reliable census data on which to build suitable samples.[4] Where such work has been done, much of it has been conducted by Western-based companies and policy makers, whose motivations and interests may be commercially- or policy-oriented.[5] As a result, their findings are not necessarily made publicly available. Finally, the self-interested nature of such work means it does not focus on the role and impressions of China in the region. As a result, the analysis of public opinion tends to be sweeping, impressionistic and stereotypical.[6]

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, public surveys are becoming a more established feature of public life in the Middle East. The 2011 protests opened some space for more polls to be done, of which a growing proportion is scholarly work that tackles underlying values and attitudes as opposed to sensationalist or topical issues.[7] Examples include the World Values Survey and the Arab Barometer, which have been conducted on a regular basis over the past decade and now have the advantage of providing longitudinal data for analysis.

Among these sources, there are at least two — the Zogby/University of Maryland survey between 2008 and 2011 and the annual surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center since 2005 — which touch on public attitudes toward.[8] Usefully, they cover the period before and after the 2011 Arab Spring protests, thereby providing an insight into public attitudes towards China during periods of relative stability and turbulence.

The issue of China was not central to the Zogby/University of Maryland survey. But the data is comparative, asking respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the UAE and Saudi Arabia[9] to evaluate their perception of other powers as preferred superpowers, threats and whether they would want themselves or a family member to live there (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Arab public opinion survey, 2008-11 (% of respondents)

Note: Figures for preference of where a family member might study are for 2008-10.

Source: University of Maryland and Zogby International

 

Figure 2: Name TWO of the countries that pose the biggest threat to you, 2008-10 (%)

Source: University of Maryland and Zogby International

Aggregating the findings for the survey’s three years, few respondents saw China as a significant threat or preferred superpower. As for whether China was a desirable place to live, few agreed with the proposition, especially when compared to some European countries like Germany, France and Britain. The figures, however, were still higher than in the U.S., Pakistan and Russia.

What may account for the low rates of perceived threat or desirability of China as a superpower or place to live? One reason may be the relatively low awareness of China among the respondents, who may have been more influenced in their views by states’ foreign policies.[10] The higher levels of approval for Germany and France (as preferred superpowers and places to live) could reflect Arab publics’ more favorable view of those countries’ responses towards the U.S. and British invasions of Iraq and treatment of the Palestinian question. Conversely, the actions of both the U.S. and Israel (and to a lesser extent, Iran) in the region were perceived negatively, leading them to see these countries as more immediate threats.

The absence of any strong views in relation to China was also evident to some extent in the surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center. Since 2005 Pew has carried out surveys across the globe. The number of countries surveyed has varied, increasing from 13 in 2006 to around 20 a few years later and 44 in 2014. Nine countries have been surveyed in the Middle East, although not always the same ones each year. Several of the countries studied by Pew overlap with the Zogby/University of Maryland study (i.e., Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco) as well as others which were not included in that survey (i.e., Tunisia, Palestine and Kuwait, as well as two non-Arab states, Israel and Turkey).

Like the Zogby/University of Maryland data, the general impression in the Pew findings is one of ambivalence: around half of region’s respondents had a favorable view of China. However, holding such views did not make Middle East respondents exceptional; indeed, their views were broadly similar to societies surveyed elsewhere in the world. (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Do you have a favorable view of China?

Source: Pew Research Center

When asked if respondents have confidence in the Chinese president, both the regional and global medians increased between 2007 and 2014, although proportionally more among the latter (Figure 4). By contrast, in the period between 2014 and 2017, whereas confidence in President Xi Jinping declined globally, it grew in the Middle East. The rise among Middle East publics may be accounted for by other developments occurring during these years, perhaps from growing media coverage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its prospects for the region.

Figure 4: How much confidence do you have in the Chinese president? (% responding confident)

Source: Pew Research Center

Regional confidence in the Chinese president was also reflected in a third question posed by Pew: does China respect the personal freedoms of its people? Globally, the number of respondents who replied “yes” grew from 2008 to 2014 before falling back. The same was true in the Middle East, although the numbers responding affirmatively were higher. While the regional and global medians faltered slightly between 2014 and 2015, they remained steady in the Middle East while dropping more noticeably in the world. Indeed, whereas the gap between global and regional median was around 15% between 2008 and 2014, after 2015 it stretched to nearly 30% (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Does China respect the personal freedoms of its people? (% responding yes)

Source: Pew Research Center

A frustrating feature of the Pew data is the absence of any follow-up questions which could establish what is driving the change of opinion and the difference between the regional and global figures. Nevertheless, there are several possible reasons for this.. One is that publics in the Middle East have relatively limited knowledge or awareness of developments inside China; consequently, they are more likely to evaluate China in relation to external factors, including in their own region. For instance, the World Values Survey has indicated that some societies — including Muslim majority — are more oriented to communal values rather than individual ones like self-expression, as in the West.[11] In addition, publics may be wary of individual rights in light of the instability unleashed by the protest movements in 2011 and the government repression that followed. Public affirmation of the Chinese government’s approach might also reflect either a wish for similar order and stability or a form of self-preservation in light of the narrowing space for expression since 2011.

Regardless, the reasons are not uniform across the region. Indeed, when Pew’s longitudinal data is aggregated and then broken down by country, the percentage of respondents who have a favorable view of China shows significant variation over the years (Figure 6).[12] In five of the seven countries, half of the respondents surveyed hold a favorable opinion of China. They include Arab and non-Arab countries, and those which were politically authoritarian (e.g., Egypt) as well as others which were more open to political competition (e.g., Lebanon, Israel). The outliers to these societies were respondents in Tunisia and Turkey, where favorability towards China was higher than the median in the former and lower in the latter.

Figure 6: Do you have a favorable opinion of China? (by country)

Source: Pew Research Center

In both cases, external factors played a role. In Tunisia’s case, the Pew data was collected after 2012 and following a relatively successful revolution which saw the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the establishment and consolidation of a more democratic regime. By 2016 Arab Barometer had found that while many Tunisians saw economic issues and corruption as the biggest challenges facing the country, they were more receptive to building closer economic relationships with other countries, especially the US and Europe.[13] Tunisians’ more positive outlook contrasted with other societies in the region, who were wary of foreign interaction.[14]

In contrast, Turkish respondents expressed lower levels of favorability towards China. Much of this may be due to widespread criticism among its political leaders and the population of China’s treatment regarding the minority Muslim Uyghur population in the far west province of Xinjiang.

The Uyghurs — a Turkic people, who share an ethnic and linguistic affinity with other peoples in Central Asia and Turkey — number about  9 million souls and 40% of the province of Xinjiang.[15] China has long viewed the population with suspicion and exploited the US declaration of war on global terrorism after the 9/11 attacks to step up its use of repression against supposed Muslim extremism and separatism within the Uyghur population.[16] As a result, many Uyghurs sought exile abroad, including in Turkey, where a large émigré community of over 50,000 had already emerged by the late 1990s.[17]

The fate of the Uyghurs and their treatment by China gained further impetus in summer 2018. Reports by human rights groups and media organizations pointed to the emerging police state that China was building in the province, including internment camps and a hi-tech surveillance system. Initially, the Chinese leadership denied the camps’ presence, which were estimated to hold anywhere between 500,000 and one million Uyghurs. Later, it conceded they did exist, but called claimed they were “re-education centers” that provide vocational training and defused potential terrorist tendencies.[18]

In November, Beijing’s actions were criticized, mostly by Western governments during China’s peer-review at the UN Human Rights Council.[19] By contrast, the leaderships of many Muslim countries did not join the criticism. For Beijing, this could be seen as a mark of success. As well as avoiding external foreign censure, it illustrates the extent of Chinese influence in the region: not only do many of these countries share China’s aversion to separatism and terrorism, they may also fear losing out on the prospect of Chinese loans and development assistance.[20] So far, the exceptions have come from Muslim countries from outside the region: Malaysia and Pakistan. In November, Malaysia’s new government decided against returning 11 detained Uyghur asylum seekers. And in Pakistan, despite some protests over the summer, the new government decided not to raise the issue when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing to negotiate a debt repayment.

However, Chinese leaders should not be too confident regarding the absence of public criticism in the Middle East for two reasons. One is that while elite criticism may be absent and prevailing public opinion may be ambivalent towards China for now, this may not always be the case. Both the Zogby/University of Maryland and Arab Barometer surveys suggest that the region’s publics are susceptible to the foreign policies of other states, especially if they are perceived to have a negative impact. In this regard, China’s wish to expand its Belt and Road Initiative to the region means that the performance of its past projects and financing will be keenly observed. Countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives have become indebted through such projects while some African countries have balked at the higher costs associated with using Chinese firms.[21]

Another reason is that the regimes with which China currently deals may not last. While the pendulum has shifted back towards greater authoritarianism and repression, the 2011 uprisings exposed both the underlying vulnerability of the regimes and their disconnection from society. Read more than 20 years ago, Nazih Ayubi noted that the region’s regimes were hard and “fierce”, but that they lacked legitimacy.[22] In large part, this was because of their failure to provide their peoples with adequate life opportunities as well as security —  challenges which few have shown the capacity or commitment needed to overcome. If and when a second, more powerful and long-lasting period of revolutionary fervor arises, sweeping away some of the region’s entrenched incumbent regimes, China’s interests and influence could be at risk. In anticipating such an eventuality, China would do well to court not only the region’s governments, but also their peoples.

Conclusion

There is a need for further work regarding what people in the Middle East think about China, as well as about other states with a presence in the region — traditional and emerging powers alike. Of course, conducting such work is likely to be challenging, especially given the repressive turn that has taken place across much of the region. As the examples of the Zogby and the Pew Research Center polls have shown, it is not always possible to survey societies in the same countries every year. Similarly, Chinese officials and business representatives are likely to treat attempts to survey public opinion with some suspicion, given their preference for dealing with governments directly. Nevertheless, there is a case for scholars and others to continue such work so as to understand better public attitudes towards China’s growing footprint in the region, their opinions and judgments of the BRI, and how they see China in relation to other powerful actors in the Middle East.

 

[1] Andrew Scobell, “Why the Middle East matters to China,” in Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Niv Horesh (eds.), China’s Presence in the Middle East: The Implications of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018): 9-23.

[2] Jonathan Fulton, “For China, the Belt and Road run through the Middle East,” South China Morning Post, July 14, 2018, accessed November 19, 2018, .
 

[3] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprising and Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2018).
 

[4] March Lynch, “Paint by numbers,” The National, May 29, 2009, accessed April 8, 2018,.
 

[5] Kiran Phull, “International Norms in the Conduct of Public Opinion Research on the MENA Region.” Paper presented at the British Society of Middle East Studies conference. London (June, 2018).
 

[6] Ding Jun, “Understanding between Peoples of China and the Middle East Countries,” Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia) 10, 3 (2016): 20-45.
 

[7] Lindsay Benstead, “Survey Research in the Arab World: Challenges and Opportunities,” PS: Political Science & Politics 51, 3 (2018): 535-542; Marc Lynch, “A Barometer for Arab Democracy,” Foreign Policy, October 16, 2012, .
 

[8] The tables include data that has been arranged and aggregated by the author from the following sources: University of Maryland, Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, 2011, ; University of Maryland and Zogby International. Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, 2010, ; Pew Research Center, Opinion of China, various years, accessed April 8, 2018,  http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/24/.
 

[9] Saudi Arabia was omitted from the final survey in 2011.
 

[10] Peter Furia and Russell Lucas, “Determinants of Arab Public Opinion on Foreign Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 3, 1 (2006): 585-605.
 

[11] See, for example, “The Cultural Map (1981-2015)” at the World Values Survey website, .
 

[12] Morocco and Kuwait were excluded as they were only surveyed by Pew in one year each, meaning that there was insufficient data to provide an aggregate of longitudinal data.
 

[13] Michael Robbins, Tunisia Five Years after the Revolution: Findings from the Arab Barometer, May 15, 2016.
 

[14] See, for example, Daniel Tavana, Egypt Five Years after the Uprisings: Findings from the Arab Barometer, July 20, 2017; Huseyin Emre Ceyhun, Jordan Five Years after the Uprisings: Findings from the Arab Barometer, August 1, 2017; Huseyin Emre Ceyhun, Lebanon: Five Years after the Arab Uprisings. Findings from the Arab Barometer, October 20, 2017.
 

[15] Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream (London: Zed, 2017): 60.
 

[16] Brian Fishman, “Al-Qaeda and the Rise of China: Jihadi Geopolitics in the Post-Hegemonic World,” Washington Quarterly 34, 3 (2011): 47-62.
 

[17] Michael Dillon, “The Middle East and China,” in Hannah Carter and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (eds.), The Middle East’s Relations with Asia and Russia (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004): 42-60. In the years that followed, China clamped down on any perceived unrest in Xinjiang, prompting Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call China’s behavior as “like a genocide.” Reference to the Uyghurs was not limited to state actors; both Al Qaeda and ISIS highlighted China’s repression against the Uyghurs as a way of gaining sympathy and recruits and contributing to China’s tacit support for the international coalition against ISIS after 2014. See Julia Famularo, “Erdogan visits Xinjiang,” The Diplomat, April 14, 2012, and Gary Sands, “China and the ISIS Threat,” The Diplomat, September 26, 2014, .
 

[18] “China defends internment camps for Uighur Muslims,” Al Jazeera, October 16, 2018, .
 

[19] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “At U.N., China Defends Mass Detention of Uighur Muslims,” New York Times, November 6, 2018, .
 

[20] Nithin Coca, “Islamic Leaders Have Nothing to Say About China’s Internment Camps for Muslims,” Foreign Policy, July 24, 2018, ; Colin Mackerras, “Silence on Xinjiang from Muslim-majority countries,” East Asia Forum, November 13, 2018, .
 

[21] Christopher Balding, “Why Democracies Are Turning Against Belt and Road,” Foreign Affairs, October 24, 2018, accessed November 19, 2018, .
 

[22] Nazih Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996).