Security personnel holding the Communist Party and Chinese national flags prepare to enter the venue for the China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, Sept. 2, 2021.

Security personnel holding the Communist Party and Chinese national flags prepare to enter the venue for the China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, Sept. 2, 2021. AP / Ng Han Guan

It’s China, Stupid

More voters across the West are caring more about China. In the next round of elections, politicians should, too.

It is rare that foreign policy plays a dominant role in electoral politics on either side of the Atlantic. Typically, it is overshadowed by topics like jobs, the economy, and so-called “kitchen-table issues” that motivate the electorate. After all, “It’s the economy, stupid,” as James Carville famously said. The exception is when one single foreign policy issue rises above the rest in a way that affects the daily lives of citizens, such as terrorism did after Sept. 11, 2001. 

The next exception should be China. 

Across the West, public awareness and opinion about China is changing fast, but because foreign policy rarely decides elections, this change has affected electoral politics less than one might have expected. And the politics are changing at different rates in different places.

The European public has grown increasingly skeptical of China, with views steadily worsening due to Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy, sanctions on European organizations and researchers, and its lack of transparency regarding COVID-19. Germans hold these negative views to an even greater degree than many of their neighbors. In an August poll, 58 percent of German voters supported a stronger posture towards China even if it affects economic relations. In addition, 52 percent believe that the EU should strongly criticize China’s human rights violations. 

But this has had mixed effects on electoral politics. In the recent German elections, the Green’s candidate Annalena Baerbock made waves in foreign-policy circles by pushing for a more values-based foreign policy towards China compared with a perceived reluctance from the SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the CDU’s Armin Laschet to move beyond Angela Merkel’s strategy of “Wandel durch Handel,” or change through trade. Even though a majority of Germans supported a more assertive foreign policy towards China instead of prioritizing economic ties at all costs, Baerbock’s Greens placed third in the elections behind the SPD and CDU respectively. While by far the Greens’ strongest showing to date, it was still a disappointment for a party that was polling in first just a few months ago. 

The Greens encountered a similar problem with climate change; though German voters ranked the issue as their country’s most serious challenge, the Greens’ only received 14.8 percent of the vote. Voters’ preferences do not necessarily cleanly align with their prioritization of issues and foreign policy is often not even a top issue, as polls have made clear from Germany, Canada, and the Czech Republic.

As elections draw near in the Czech Republic, Czechs hold more negative views of China than any other country, yet the party of China-friendly Prime Minister Andrej Babis still has strong odds of winning October elections. Czech voters care more about issues like healthcare, justice, education, public finances, and crime. 

To a greater extent than in other policy areas, there are often large cleavages within the major parties over foreign policy, leading to yet more uncertainty about its impact on electoral politics. In Germany, there was a revolt from within the CDU from Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, over Merkel’s refusal to exclude Huawei from Germany’s 5G networks. Nils Schmid, the SPD’s point person on foreign policy, called Merkel’s China policy outdated. The direction of German foreign policy will not only be determined by the party with the chancellorship, but also by the individual selected to lead the Foreign Ministry.

In Canada, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole attacked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his China policy during nationally televised debates. His attacks specifically focused on Trudeau’s policies towards Huawei, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, hostage diplomacy, and Trudeau’s failure to show up for a vote declaring China’s human rights abuses against the Uighurs a genocide. While O’Toole’s attacks got notice on the debate stage, Trudeau held on to win a plurality of seats. 

Looking ahead to 2022, China may feature more prominently in election debates in France and Hungary. According to IFRI, a leading French foreign policy think tank, “…China is emerging in the public debate in France, likely because of China’s global assertiveness and the Chinese Embassy’s aggressiveness, and the French executive may soon follow.” The French elite have been slow to respond to changing public opinion on China, but individual MPs and MEPs are pushing for change from within their parties while in one survey, 62 percent of French respondents said that their view of China worsened during COVID-19. In Hungary, Viktor Orban was forced to backtrack on plans to use public funds to build a Chinese university in Budapest after intense public backlash; leading opposition politicians ahead of 2022 elections have already started using this as a campaign talking point. Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, a leading opposition figure, has even renamed streets across from the proposed site of the Chinese university to Free Hong Kong road and Uyghur Martyrs’ road.

Even if foreign policy is not a top issue for most Canadian, Czech, or German voters, elections in 2022 should prove different as the politics of China steadily become more important for the politics in the transatlantic community.

James Lamond is the director of the Democratic Resilience program at CEPA, the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Jake Morris is a program assistant with the Democratic Resilience program at CEPA.