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China's image of strength
01:03 - Source: CNN

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47% of respondents maintained favorable view of China

Think tank conducted poll across 38 countries

Beijing CNN  — 

The world’s reigning and emerging superpowers are neck-and-neck in the popularity stakes, according to a new report on China’s global image released Thursday.

Among nearly 42,000 people across 38 countries polled by the Washington-based Pew Research Center this spring, 49% held a favorable view of the United States, compared to 47% for China.

The results, though similar, show deep divisions in global perceptions. China is most liked in Russia as well as sub-Saharan Africa, a region where Beijing has spent billions of dollars in aid and infrastructure in recent years.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.

“Money buys you better image on the global stage,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia regional director for Amnesty International. “China has been investing very heavily to develop its ‘soft power’ – and its ability to minimize news and information about aspects that reflect poorly on its government.”

China’s global unfavorable rating stands at 37%, compared to 39% for the US. While Americans seem equally divided between fans and critics of China, Asian nations such as Japan and Vietnam have responded most negatively to their giant neighbor, which has been flexing its military muscles in the East and South China Seas in dealing with territorial disputes.

Favorable views of China plunged to historical lows of 34% in South Korea, which recently agreed to place a US advanced missile defense system in its territory despite Beijing’s stern warnings and divisions inside South Korea on the deployment.

Economic might

China comparatively fares better on economic issues as opposed to other topics: 42% see the US as the world’s leading economy, while 32% pick China.

The issue is also trending in China’s favor, with the number of nations naming China as the top economy doubling compared to the group’s previous survey, conducted between 2014 and 2016.

RELATED: Global view of US worsens under Trump, Pew says

China’s economy, the world’s second-largest behind that of the US, has been slowing but grew a respectable 6.7% last year, according to official government figures.

Some of the US’ closest allies in the study – including Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom – consider China the top global economy, as does Russia.

Global confidence

One thing that China and the US do share is both their leaders lack confidence from people across the globe.

Only 28% of respondents believe Chinese President Xi Jinping will do the right thing in international affairs, while 53% disagree.

A whopping 74% of people surveyed have no confidence in US President Donald Trump, who the study says is better known globally.

As Xi continues to tighten his grip over the world’s most populous nation and crack down on political dissent, one area that the US still has a much stronger global image is human rights protection.

 A carboard cutout of Chinese President Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella during a protest in Hong Kong.

The issue was recently in the spotlight again as the Beijing leadership ignored a global appeal to allow terminally ill Nobel-winning Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to seek treatment overseas. Liu died of liver cancer Thursday.

“There is a limit to what money can accomplish,” Bequelin said. “The treatment of Liu Xiaobo can take away very quickly whatever good impression that has been manufactured by China’s charm offensives.”

Among the nations polled, 54% say the US government respects personal freedoms, compared to just 25% who say this about the Chinese authorities and 58% who disagree.

Views of China’s reputation for defending its citizens’ rights are grim across much of the world except in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a toast during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Generational shift

It’s not all bad news for China’s image in the West. In both Europe and North America, younger generations appear to have adopted a much friendlier attitude toward China than their elders.

The pattern is most pronounced in the United Kingdom, where 62% of young Brits aged 18 to 29 view China favorably, in contrast to only 38% among those aged 50 and older. Similar results are found in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands and the US.

“If you go to China, you see all the famous Western brands, you see Starbucks and so forth,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a longtime China analyst. “Many young people in the West don’t realize it’s still a very repressive political system.”