What’s not right about China’s response to COVID-19?

For Beijing, its successful coronavirus response was a shining example in the global pandemic fight. But for many of the world’s most advanced economies, the prevailing view has been that China handled the outbreak poorly, hardening attitudes towards the country that were already souring.

The Pew Research Centre on Tuesday published surveys from 14 countries – Australia, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, South Korea, Spain, Japan, Italy, France, Denmark, Belgium and Canada – that were largely negative on Beijing’s handling of the virus , which was first reported in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

While respondents gave lower marks to the US for its response, a median of 61 per cent said China had done a poor job in dealing with the outbreak.

“Pew found the assessment of the US is the worst, but China is the second-worst,” said a mainland-based Chinese politics professor, who declined to be named.

“The narratives about the Chinese government’s initial cover-ups and other mistakes are too strong. On the other hand, China’s public relations capabilities are still very weak.”

The stark contrast in the domestic celebration of Beijing’s pandemic performance – buoyed by state narratives and aggressive censorship – and criticism in major democracies has highlighted increasingly polarised messaging in and outside China.

While Beijing’s diplomats have touted China’s donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) and virus containment, their external rhetoric and initial cover-ups of the outbreak have fuelled heightened hostility towards China in the West, observers say.

“The disparity reflects the relative success of Chinese propaganda at home and its relative failure abroad,” Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said.

“Chinese officials tended overall to reinforce foreign preconceptions of the Chinese government as an arrogant, non-transparent, propaganda-spewing dictatorship.”

Even before the pandemic, major democracies had already seen public sentiment turn against Beijing’s more assertive and combative diplomacy.

In Australia – which Pew found had the highest spike in negative views on China at 84 per cent – China’s image had been battered by accusations of Chinese interference and economic coercion.

Natasha Kassam, research fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat in China, said Covid-19 had deepened pre-existing views on China, accelerating negative trajectories in some countries and adding to the positive image in China-friendly nations like Cambodia and Hungary.

“It’s almost like a Rorschach test,” she said. “In liberal democracies already concerned about China’s behaviour, you look at the pandemic and see mismanagement, the lack of transparency, an authoritarian response.

“If you were a country that was part of the Belt and Road [Initiative] or looked favourably towards China’s efforts in your region, then you look at the pandemic response and see a country that has gotten the virus under control and provided masks and other equipment to other countries.”

Inside China, foreign criticism of the pandemic has been harder to stomach. Beijing has accused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of seeking to shift blame for American pandemic mistakes to China, and condemned Australia for seeking an independent inquiry into the virus origins in China.

Chinese media did not report the Pew findings, although state media covered earlier Pew research on declining opinions of the US for its Covid-19 failings. Some on Chinese social media reacted to reposted snippets of the Pew report with consternation, while others suggested that it may be part of the information war against China.

“Are findings from a US organisation credible?” one wrote. “Views of the West in China have plunged from chaotic information in the US election and the collective anti-China position of Western media. We no longer know who we can trust.”

Another commented: “Let’s see the unfavourable views the Chinese public has of the US.”

A Beijing-based Chinese scholar, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to overseas media, said the pandemic had strongly affected China’s image because the West was still struggling with the virus, while the outbreak had subsided in China.

Worsening perceptions of China in certain countries would prompt harsher government policies, triggering strong Chinese responses in a “vicious cycle”, he said.

“China’s actions after the pandemic also gave the West the impression that China was profiting from their misfortunes, including their PPE diplomacy and tougher stances on issues in China-US relations , in the South China Sea , Hong Kong and the border crisis with India ,” the scholar said.

“As for differences in domestic and foreign perceptions, this has to do with public opinion controls in China. You cannot see negative comments about the pandemic in China, so naturally peoples’ feelings will be different from those abroad.”