Take your cue from Pew


While the South African government increasingly makes its preference for China over the United States (US) very clear, its people evidently think differently.

A solid majority of them – 74% – view the US favourably, while just a bare majority, 52%, are as well disposed towards China, according to the latest survey of the Pew Research Center, conducted in May.

Though US based, the centre is widely respected for its objectivity as well as the global reach and consistency of its findings. It has been conducting global surveys for many years, asking people about issues that governments, and especially foreign policymakers, ought to be paying attention to.

In case anyone doubts its impartiality, in its latest survey, Pew asked 45 435 people in 40 countries, among many other questions, whether they thought America’s use of ‘interrogation methods that many consider to be torture on people suspected of terrorism’ after 9/11 was justified. About 35% thought the interrogation methods (otherwise euphemistically known as ‘waterboarding’) were justified, though 50% (fortunately) said they weren’t. In South Africa, rather surprisingly, views were balanced with 35% for and 35% against.

South Africa is more sceptical about China than all of its fellow Africans

Overall, though, the survey found that worldwide 69% of people regard the US favourably and 24% unfavourably, versus 55% who regard China favourably and 34% who don't.  

According to the survey, South Africans distinguish themselves in sub-Saharan Africa, by being the most ill disposed towards both China and the US.

Of the nine, fairly representative, nations surveyed on this continent (Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa) an average of over 79% view the US favourably. Ghana tops the list at 89% – compared to South Africa’s 74%. An average of 10% view America unfavourably, with South Africa being the highest, at 16%.

When it comes to China, South Africans also have the least favourable opinion, in sub-Saharan Africa, of the country’s coveted BRICS (Brazil Russia, India, China South Africa) partner. Of the nine African nations surveyed, the median opinion is 70% favourable, significantly more than South Africa’s 52%.

Cynically, one might conclude – perhaps with recent xenophobia in mind – that South Africans just don’t like any foreigners very much. More seriously though, the survey provides several pointers to why global citizens, including South Africans and other Africans, feel the way they do about the two rivals for global domination.

South Africans' opinions of the US have generally improved over the last 13 years

One of these, not surprisingly, is about liberty and human rights. Globally, despite the misgivings of mostly Middle East countries, 63% of people think that the US respects the personal liberties of its own people, while 22% believe it doesn’t.

In Africa that rises to nearly 70% who believe America respects liberties whereas South Africa is more sceptical, being in line with the global figure of 63%. About 73% of Africans also admire America for its democracy.

Weirdly – and this very telling about America’s capacity for self-criticism - only 51% of Americans themselves believe the US respects their personal liberties. Go figure! (as the Americans would say). In contrast with this positive view of the US globally, 45% of respondents feel China does not respect the personal liberties of its people, while only 34% feel it does.

In Africa, though, there was a big difference from the global norm, as a relatively high 60% feel China upholds its peoples’ personal liberties, versus only 19% who don’t.

This surprisingly high approval rating for China in Africa may have something to do with the low bar on respect for personal liberties which most African governments have set themselves. With its own high personal liberties, South Africa is more sceptical about China than all of its fellow Africans, though even here a plurality – 40% believe that China respects personal liberties, versus 33% who think not. This, though, could be an important factor in South Africa giving China a lower overall score.

Other factors also clearly influence the images of the superpowers. Pew found the US is most admired in Africa – by 83% of people – for its scientific and technical knowhow; 73% for its way of doing business; and 58% for its culture. About 56% of Africans are even happy with the notion of US ideas and customs spreading to their countries – in sharp contrast with most of the rest of the world, which is highly protectionist when it comes to ‘invasive’ US culture.

Governments should be guided by the views of their people - especially their young people

The survey also suggests that the relative prowess of the two giants is a factor in their approval ratings globally, also in Africa and in South Africa, and that the shifting balance of power between them will increasingly affect how the world sees them.

Objectively speaking, the US still has the world’s largest economy and China the second largest.  Against that factual benchmark it is perhaps surprising that only 50% of respondents agreed that the US is the world’s leading economic power, while 27% said China was.

In sub-Saharan Africa a higher average – 59% of people – regard the US as the world’s leading economic power, versus 20% who think China is. In South Africa the percentages are 53 and 21 respectively.

Globally, the opinions of the two major powers are evidently being shaped with an eye to the future. Some 48% believe China has already or will eventually replace the US as the world’s greatest superpower, while 35% believe it never will.

In sub-Saharan Africa the corresponding figures are 47% and 33%, while South Africans seem a little less sanguine about China’s prospects, with only 40% believing it will overtake America versus 33% who don’t think it ever will.

South Africans’ opinions of the US have generally improved over the last 13 years. In 2002, only 65% were fond of the US and that dropped to 60% in 2008. But it rose to 72% in 2013 and a high of 76% in 2014, before dropping slightly to the 74% this year. The difference between the early 2000s and more recently is likely, though, to be the result of the unpopularity of President George W Bush and the greater popularity of President Barack Obama, who replaced him in 2008.

Looking to the future, the survey found that all around the world, younger people regard both the US and China more favourably than older people. In South Africa, for instance, 78% of 18- to 29-year-olds; 74% of 30- to 49-year-olds but only 69% of plus-50s, like the US (versus the average 74%). Some 52% of 18- to 29-year-old South Africans and 58% of 30- to 49-year-olds, but only 43% of plus-50s, like China (versus the 52% average).

If governments of the world are to be guided by the views of their people – as presumably they should be – and especially their young people, these statistics suggest they should be keeping on good terms with both the US and China. What’s the point of alienating either?

The South African government, with its growing propensity for zero-sum foreign policy in favour of China, could do especially well to study this report.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Click here for the full survey results from Pew Research Center

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