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A head cast in the likeness of Chinese President Xi Jinping at a protest in Dharmsala, India, is placed over a pile of effigies representing the dead from minority communities in China on Oct. 1, 2020.

Ashwini Bhatia/The Associated Press

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

China, the only major global economy enjoying positive growth this year, is apparently shocked to discover that, instead of admiring its rapid recovery, the developed world has a far worse view of the country.

That’s according to the Pew Research Center’s survey of 14 countries that span the world, from Canada in the north to Australia in the south, including most of the world’s richest countries; it found that in each country, a majority holds an unfavourable opinion of China, and believes that Beijing handled the coronavirus crisis poorly. In nine of those countries, negative views have reached their highest points since Pew began polling on this topic more than a decade ago.

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One explanation for China’s negative image, offered up by the nationalistic tabloid Global Times: “Sour grapes.”

A more likely one is that China’s chickens have come home to roost. In January, after people in Wuhan were stricken by COVID-19, quite a few countries responded to China’s appeal for help by sending face masks and other supplies. Beijing asked them not to publicize their donations, however, so that it would not lose face to its citizens.

But not much later, the virus spread beyond China’s borders and countries that had sent aid to China themselves faced critical shortages. Beijing then relished a highly publicized role of benefactor, sending – in many cases selling – needed supplies, some of which were defective, and then gratingly asking recipients to express public gratitude.

Still, China was determined to be seen as a “responsible major country,” as the People’s Daily put it. This hypocritical attitude is a key reason for the negative sentiment toward China.

The negative sentiment predates the pandemic, however. There is another factor at work, and that has to do with something China is highly sensitive about: human rights.

It is no coincidence that 13 of the 14 countries – South Korea being the exception – were among those that harshly criticized China in the United Nations debate on human rights earlier this month.

Many have recent, first-hand experience of the effects of a slighted China. When Australia’s government suggested that the World Health Organization investigate the origin of the pandemic, Beijing announced it would cut back coal imports and, just this weekend, cotton exports as well. Little wonder that 81 per cent of Australians now hold negative views, compared with 57 per cent last year.

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In Canada, the Chinese ambassador, Cong Peiwu, warned Ottawa against granting asylum to Hong Kong activists, saying that if Canada cared about the 300,000 Canadian passport-holders in the city, it should support Beijing’s national-security law. Mr. Cong denied he was making a threat.

The diplomat also defended China’s failure to allow consular visits for nine months to two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – despite a bilateral agreement stipulating monthly visits. He blamed the pandemic, even though China announced in the late spring that it had the situation under control. And when a visit was finally allowed in October, it was held remotely. The two men are being held on espionage charges in a case widely seen as punishment of Canada for its arrest of a top Chinese executive at the telecom equipment firm Huawei.

The United States, too, has received warnings from China. On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Beijing has told Washington that it might detain Americans in response to trials of Chinese military-affiliated scholars. This hostage threat will surely further tarnish China’s image.

The abduction of foreign nationals is just an extension of what Beijing has done to ethnic Chinese people around the world, despite the existence of laws, treaties and international boundaries. It was only five years ago that booksellers, including a British and a Swedish citizen, disappeared from Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively, and later reappeared under custody in mainland China – the type of behaviour that, in reverse, would be condemned by Chinese leaders.

Six years ago, on Oct. 24 – United Nations Day – China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for defending the international rule of law, rejecting what he called the law of the jungle, “where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.”

But words are not enough. China’s actions must match, whether in its dealings with Canada, the United States, Australia, Hong Kong or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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It’s not just about popularity. China risks losing the trade and investment that it needs from the developed world. If it wants to be seen as a “responsible major country,” it must behave accordingly.

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