Polls give China a free ride

The Pew Research Center recently released two multinational polls as part of its Pew Global Attitudes Project. These polls have touched on extremely sensitive topics such as international opinion of the United States and Islamic extremism. The study of America’s image was based on a 16-nation survey, and the Islamic study polled 17 nations.

The Pew Research Center recently released two multinational polls as part of its Pew Global Attitudes Project. These polls have touched on extremely sensitive topics such as international opinion of the United States and Islamic extremism. The study of America’s image was based on a 16-nation survey, and the Islamic study polled 17 nations.

I am always skeptical and concerned about efforts to use American-style polling in other countries and cultures. Obviously, simple matters such as language and the integrity of translation pose a challenge to the validity of cross-national polls. The process of data collection is problematic, too, when you have to mix telephone interviews with face-to-face interviews. In Pew’s Islamic survey, for example, 10 of the 17 countries polled required face-to-face interviews, owing to spotty telephone coverage or cultural preferences for personal communication.

Then there is the issue of whether Americans should be doing any of this research anyway, especially when the projects are done more for publicity’s sake than for academic purposes. There’s always a danger that the results will be used more for political propaganda than for the advancement of knowledge.

It’s not hard to find examples of troubling uses of these data. A headline over a Pew story in Australia’s The Age blares, “Uncle Sam looks for all the world like the bad guy.” The Kyodo News agency concludes, “China viewed more favorably than America, global survey finds.”

Even here at home, the news is pessimistic. The Associated Press, for example, released a poll story on a recent Pew project under the headline “U.S. image so tattered overseas that China is more popular.” This observation about Pew’s poll may be accurate, but it doesn’t tell the whole story because the poll didn’t tell the whole story. The poll was so focused on the United States and its Middle East policies that it didn’t raise any issues about China’s abuses of human rights, its vast military buildup, its bullying of Taiwan or its protectionist trade policies.

Pew’s own report of this poll contains some gems. For example, we learn that “nearly half (47 percent) of Pakistanis would turn to China for global environmental protection.” We also learn that 42 percent of Pakistanis would turn to China to stop genocide. We also learn that a majority of Middle Eastern residents say that it would be good for China to become a military rival for the United States. Only the Lebanese who were polled were enlightened enough to eschew this devilish notion.

These “findings” make the point that Pew’s survey created a one-sided environment in which all of America’s supposed faults were magnified while China was given a free ride.

The free ride many public pollsters seem to give China is a particular problem for the Gallup Organization. According to a Chicago Tribune story published in 1993, Gallup President Jim Clifton admitted that his organization made an initial investment in its China operations of between $10 million and $20 million.

For the Gallup Organization, a relatively small, privately held company, that was an enormous sum of money. But Clifton’s an entrepreneur, and he recognized the enormous market that China represented, not just for the Chinese but, more important, for American-led multinational businesses that want to invest in China. The result has been that the Gallup Poll’s website now features pictures of the Great Wall of China and endless links to Chinese opinion reports.

But Gallup has erected its own wall around probing questions of Americans about its new cash-cow country. In 1994, for example, Gallup released a poll saying that Chinese goods rate low in consumers’ eyes. We haven’t seen that question repeated in the past decade — at least, it hasn’t been generally released to the public, as far as I can find.

Gallup’s website contains lots of data on Chinese opinions of American brands but almost nothing about American impressions of Chinese goods. Gallup’s Clifton probably can’t afford to report the answer.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.