Discovering a New Explanatory Factor in Public Opinion Towards China

I’ve been thinking a lot about global public opinion towards China, with special emphasis on countries targeted by China’s massive infrastructure investment scheme, the “Belt and Road” initiative.

Face-to-face, telephone, and internet surveys are all providing streams of new data on public opinion towards China from around the world. One interesting study, for example, is based on data from an Indonesian national survey commissioned by ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute, a local think tank, while another of select African countries comes from the Afrobarometer platform.

There are also some excellent books based on qualitative or journalistic research, including Howard French’s very readable China’s Second Continent, which deals with Chinese influence in Africa, or David Lampton et al’s more painstakingly written Rivers of Iron, which focuses on Chinese investment in Southeast Asia.

Not surprisingly, this body of research finds a lot of variation in global public opinion towards China at both the country and individual level.

One particular study stands out, however, for the innovative nature of its analysis. Published by Pew in April 2020, the authors pooled all responses from people asked about their views on China from 2013 to 2016. The analysts then calculated a new measure, respondent distance from a segment of the Lagos-Kano Standard Gauge Railway. Construction on the segment began in 2013 and was completed in 2016.

The Pew analysts found that once the segment had been completed, respondents living closer to the railway had a higher opinion of China than the country’s general population, on average, controlling for a range of standard factors (age, gender, education, etc.)

The beauty of this finding is the discovery of an important new explanatory variable: “physical-distance-to-the-closest-Chinese-infrastructure-project.”

Moving forward, any new poll of public opinion towards China, or Chinese investment in particular, should include this new factor. Measurement will take a bit of doing, but it’s not overwhelmingly difficult. You ask or record the respondent’s geographic location, find the relevant point in a nearby Chinese-funded infrastructure project, compute the distance in kilometers or miles, and then insert that figure into a multivariate regression, controlling for other factors.

Time will tell whether this finding holds true more generally across time and space, or whether the Pew finding was a one-off exception. Logically, however, proximity to a completed infrastructure project built with Chinese money, expertise and labor should matter.

A Minneapolis based research professional, James Ron has a background spanning three decades and locations around the globe. jamesron.com

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