Policy Brief

Oct 24, 2023

Skeptical and Concerned – How Germans View China

People visit the exhibition area of China at the 75th Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany
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Two representative opinion polls conducted in 2020 and 2022 show that the German population supports a more principled China policy. At the same time, two-thirds of respondents identify as the policy priority cooperation with China to solve global challenges – narrowly followed by cyber security and human rights concerns. Although this approach resembles Germany’s new China Strategy, the public is not yet convinced that the issue is being effectively addressed. Channeling public support to back concrete action is key for the Germany’s China policy.

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Key Findings

60% of Germans polled are willing to accept higher consumer prices to reduce economic dependencies on China, and only 31% approve of Chinese technology in Germany’s 5G infrastructure. 

48% of respondents want to prioritize human rights over economic benefits, while only 15% disagree. Only 25% do not hold German companies accountable for the human rights violations of their suppliers.

Almost half of Germans surveyed are concerned the country’s economy is not strong enough to reduce dependencies on Russia and China at the same time.

The government needs to better explain the means, ends, and cost of its China policy and invest in China-related public education to reduce the feeling of unsurety. Closer EU alignment is widely supported and could increase the confidence of the population.

 


About the Poll

As part of the Sinophone Borderlands project headed by Palacký University Olomouc in Czechia, a series of representative online public opinion surveys have been conducted in 2020 and 2022, investigating attitudes toward China and other related issues.* In collaboration with partners in the surveyed countries, the German Council on Foreign Relations being the German partner, we have surveyed 56 countries worldwide (four of them twice, including Germany) and have collected responses from more than 80,000 respondents on more than 300 datapoints in each country. These characteristics make this currently the broadest and most detailed public opinion study into global attitudes toward China.

The first German survey was run in September and October 2020 and gathered 1,501 respondents. The second German survey was run between August and October 2022 and gathered 1,508 respondents. The research samples in both cases were representative of gender, age, education level, urban-rural divide, and regions within the country. Both surveys were conducted online by NMS Market Research Agency in collaboration with Cint. The data collection was conducted in line with the guidelines of the ICC/ESOMAR International Code on Market, Opinion and Social Research and Data Analytics, and the research received a positive ethical statement from the Ethical Commission of the Faculty of Arts, Palacký University Olomouc.

“Sinophone Borderlands – Interaction at the Edges” was a research project based at the Palacký University Olomouc, Czechia. The project was funded by the European Regional Develop-ment Fund, project no. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000791. The Sinophone Borderlands research team consisted of researchers from various disciplines under three main Research Groups − Political Science, Anthropology, and Linguistics − allowing for a cross-disciplinary dialogue and cross-cultural comparisons pushing the academic studies of China and Asia beyond the limits of current disciplinary and national frameworks. This report, for the first time, reflects on the out-come of the results from the German public and draws policy conclusions for the German political leadership.

 

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

Foreign policy hardly ever wins democratic elections. The electorate mostly cares about domestic affairs and economic well-being and largely ignores foreign policy. Growing geopolitical tensions, the Russia-Ukraine War, supply chain shortages, and rising inflation have painfully illustrated the impact of foreign affairs with domestic affairs and prosperity. Apart from Russia, the People’s Republic of China has taken center stage in Germany’s foreign policy controversies. As more and more people care about China and its relations with Germany, public opinion polling becomes more meaningful.

A widespread assumption among policymakers, company representatives, and observers is that German voters and consumers are mostly concerned with prosperity and welfare. This paper is based on comprehensive opinion polling in 2020 and 2022 funded by the European Regional Development Fund as part of the Sinophone Borderlands project. It provides exceptional insights into the German public’s perception of China and German-China relations. It demonstrates that public opinion is more nuanced than the general assumption suggests.

We find that China’s image in Germany is generally negative. This is less the case of the Chinese people, but the political regime −  including President Xi Jinping − is unpopular. China, a country that only 40 percent clearly do not classify as Germany’s enemy, is seen as possessing enormous hard power resources but little soft power.

Respondents advocate a more principled China policy wherever this is possible. Human rights are considered a priority over economic interests. The polls show robust support for the reduction of dependencies, an exclusion of Chinese technology from critical infrastructure, and the adoption of the Zeitenwende paradigm in dealings with China. However, concerns remain whether Germany can afford to economically disentangle itself from Russia and China at the same time. The public opinion is divided on whether Germany should provide economic assistance to Taiwan in case of a war.

German voters are also consumers. As the polls demonstrate the expectations for a more principled China policy, they also indicate that the respondents hold companies accountable for human rights violations committed by their suppliers.

All in all, the German population is willing to pay an economic price but feels insecure and uncertain about the country’s capabilities. Companies are well-advised to carefully consider human rights violations and their ethical responsibility. German policymakers should draw the following three conclusions from this public opinion poll.

First, Germany needs to urgently strengthen its China competence. The poll displays high values for “neither/nor answers” indicating a high degree of uncertainty. Existing knowledge needs to be made ready for public consumption more easily. As China is being attributed a high degree of power (and thereby, inherently, importance) and an apparent uncertainty exists as to whether Germany can afford to do what is needed, better educating the public could help grow confidence.

Second, as the German public supports a more principled approach but is uncertain about what is realistic, policymakers should strive to explain their precise goals, the means at their disposal, and the costs that they entail. There is enough evidence that momentum within the population exists that policymakers can use to reshape Germany’s China policy – if they explain themselves.

Third, an overwhelming majority of Germans support acting in coordination with the European Union. As China’s power is growing and confidence in German strength is diminishing, the federal government should implement its promise to “Europeanize” Germany’s China policy. The China Strategy is a good first step and should be implemented in a spirit of alignment with the EU. Germany can hardly simply follow the EU but will need to actively strive for a European consensus. The poll indicates that such an initiative finds the support of the population.

If the German government succeeds in making sense of its new, more principled China policy and explains its means, the German population seems to be ready to bear the economic cost. This may help reduce the widespread feeling of insecurity. Closer EU alignment and clear communication can help increase confidence and support for Germany’s new China policy.

The full Policy brief contains detailed insights supported by 34 graphs to help you understand the subject better. Download the PDF version here.

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Bibliographic data

DGAP Policy Brief No. 29, October 24, 2023, 19 pp.