China is Beating U.S. in the Battle for Influence Over Developing Countries

For the first time ever, China has beaten the U.S. in the ideological and political battle to win people's favor in developing countries, as those lose faith in the world's liberal democracies.

According to a recent poll by the Centre for the Future of Democracy of the University of Cambridge, U.K., 62 percent of people in developing countries are now favorable towards China, while 61 percent see the U.S. positively.

Composite Photo of Joe Biden and China
In this combination photo, a file photo of security guards walking past the Chinese national flag at the Military Museum of Chinese People's Revolution and U.S. President Joe Biden looks out to a crowd at Delaware State University on October 21, 2022. The president has shied away from any comment. Getty

There's only a small distance between the two countries, and that one percentage point difference might not seem so significant. But the data reveals a world that has become more polarized since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February this year.

While Western democracies stand more firmly behind the U.S. and have an overwhelming negative view of China and Russia, a great number of countries stretching between eastern Europe, Asia and the west of Africa have moved closer to China and Russia in the last 10 years.

Data from the Centre for the Future of Democracy—obtained by merging 30 global survey projects that span a total of 137 countries representing 97 percent of the world population—shows that, among the 1.2 billion people living in the world's liberal democracies, 75 percent hold a negative view of China and 87 percent a negative view of Russia.

This same data is almost reversed in developing countries. Among the 6.3 billion people who live in the world's remaining 136 countries, 70 percent feel positively towards China and 66 percent towards Russia.

This divide, which has been in the making for the last 10 years as Russia and especially China expanded their influence in developing countries through investments and trades, has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

"The world is torn between two opposing clusters: a maritime alliance
democracies, led by the United States; and a Eurasian bloc of illiberal or autocratic states, centred upon Russia and China," writes the Centre for the Future of Democracy in its report.

Why Are Russia and China Gaining Support in Developing Countries?

One of the reasons linked to the increased support in developing countries for authoritarian powers like China and Russia are perceived shortcomings of democracies in liberal countries.

A majority of the public is dissatisfied with democratic performance in seven out of 10 countries that are majority-favourable to Russia, according to the Centre for the Future of Democracy, while most feel positively towards China in three-quarters of countries that are majority-dissatisfied with how their democracy is performing.

But there are also economic reasons behind the support China enjoys in developing countries. In 2013, China launched the Belt and Road initiative, a massive project that has invested over $4 trillion into the 147 participating countries to build energy infrastructure and transportation projects.

Among the 4.6 billion people living in countries supported by the Belt
and Road Initiative, almost two-thirds hold a positive view of China, compared
to just 27 percent in non-participating countries that have not received Beijing's assistance.

On the other hand, China has gained approval in developing countries while losing significant support in developed nations. Five years ago, 42 percent of Western citizens looked at China positively, while now only 23 percent do.

The same is true about Russia: the number of Western citizens holding a positive view of Russia dropped from 39 percent to 12 in the past 10 years, plunging from 23 to 12 percent only since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.

The troubling factor to consider is that the Kremlin probably doesn't even care about losing support in Western democracies. "The real terrain of Russia's international influence lies outside of the West," writes the Centre for the Future of Democracy.

Some 75 percent of respondents in South Asia, 68 percent in Francophone Africa, 62 percent in Southeast Asia holds a positive opinion of Russia despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.

One last reason why developing countries might have swayed from the U.S. towards China and Russia are conflicting values: as the U.S. and Western nations have embraced more progressive values in the last decade—regarding LGBTQ+ rights, individualism, and gender equality—other countries have stuck to their traditional, conservative values.

This has offered an opportunity for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to present themselves as defenders of "traditional" values in the face of a so-called western "decadence"—Putin's case—and protectors of their country's national sovereignty—Xi's case.

This new world's polarization clearly shows that the nations that feel closer to China and Russia are poorer, less stable, and more dependent upon their external support, while the liberal bloc rallying around the U.S. has a significant advantage, accounting for the lion's share of global military spending, foreign aid, and cultural influence.