In an era in which propaganda, disinformation and cyberattacks impact all walks of life, from data breaches to election outcomes, coupled with the prospect of non-state actors having the power to shape how we live and communicate, trust in the traditional order is understandably eroding. The growing influence of China in digital infrastructure and technical standards globally means that traditional alliances are equally on shaky ground, with the geopolitical landscape experiencing major shifts.
To assess levels of trust in the international order, we have considered the following measures:
The level of cooperation between countries deemed acceptable in order to advance science.
Levels of trust in global powers, including China and the United States.
The countries that are regarded as the worst offenders when it comes to disinformation and cyberattacks.
From climate change to the pandemic, global solutions and cooperation have never been more crucial. However, our survey points to a reticence among respondents on proposed areas of cooperation with China, even if this is to advance science and technology.
Scientific cooperation between their country and China should be restricted, according to 41 per cent of US respondents
With 41 per cent of US respondents believing restrictions on scientific cooperation with China are needed, compared to 35 per cent with Russia, it is clear that China is the least trusted by US citizens on this issue. This is likely to be problematic since China dominates many big technology sectors. For example, it is the world’s leading manufacturer, exporter and user of green technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. For those countries looking to innovate their way to net zero and away from fossil fuels – while seeking to meet their COP26 pledges – working with China is today more important than ever. Some optimism for future collaboration between China and the US on climate change came from their joint declaration at COP26. Using this as a lead, policymakers must work out what else the two biggest powers can work together on for the global good, starting with the identification of common interests that build on existing relationships.
Western powers need to build a coherent and coordinated strategy on technology – one that mitigates threats to protect our values, but which also enables cooperation with China. Data from our survey suggest, however, that public appetite for this approach is limited. Indeed, it is likely the Biden administration would enjoy greater public support if it placed competition with China at the centre of its foreign policy. At the same time, China’s latest five-year plan puts greater emphasis on scientific self-sufficiency, particularly in areas such as biotechnology, blockchain, neuroscience and robotics.
This means that the West equally needs to make strategic investments in key technologies to counter the Made in China 2025 strategy. China’s strategy aims to give the country a dominant position in many global markets, underpinned by its increase in research and development (R&D) investment by 7 per cent each year. New alliances between other global powers must be forged to further science and tech advances. For example, our data show that only a very small percentage of US respondents (6 to 7 per cent) believe that scientific cooperation between their country and countries including Brazil, France, Germany and Great Britain should be subject to restrictions.
Far from regarding the US as a stabilising force, respondents to our survey identified the country as one that would use its economic power to bully other countries as well as use technology to disrupt the life of others. Even among the US’s traditional allies, the US came second only to China as the nation most likely to use its economic might to bully others.
The US is seen as the biggest economic bully among citizens in emerging markets while it came second only to China among citizens in developed markets
The US is identified as the most likely economic bully among the citizens of those countries categorised, according to Freedom House, as “not free” (52 per cent) and “partly free” (46 per cent), while Russia and Great Britain came joint third among “not free” nations. Great Britain came fourth among “partly free” countries at 10 per cent and fifth among “free” countries at 8 per cent. Significantly, citizens of “free” countries are almost twice as likely as “not free” nations to rate China as the biggest economic bully.
Behind the US, China is rated second in the list of most likely economic bullies, with almost twice as many respondents in “free” versus “not free” countries voting this way
Furthermore, a significant proportion of respondents across our surveyed countries agree that the US is using its economic and military might, as well as technology, to undermine authorities in other countries and influence their governments.
The US is seen as a top offender for using technology to disrupt the life of others, listed among the top three in “free”, “partly free” and “not free” countries
This is a view held by US respondents themselves, with Americans aged between 18 and 34 most likely to agree that their own government has used military force to threaten the territorial rights of neighbouring countries and engage in cyberattacks. Young Americans are also comparatively more hesitant to blame Russia and China for undertaking cyberattacks.
US respondents aged between 18 and 34 are more likely than those in older age categories to believe their country has threatened the territorial rights of neighbouring countries and initiated global cyberattacks
The perceptions of younger US citizens could reflect the higher general awareness of modern instruments of warfare, such as cyberattacks, among this age demographic. The data could also be affected by the greater awareness among US citizens of what is happening in their own country versus in others, thereby creating a bias in their selection. Equally it is possible that older generations may be influenced by Cold War biases, and are therefore more inclined to believe that China and Russia wield more power in this area.
But even when considering these factors, it seems the US has a way to go to both rebuild trust in the global community and to win the trust of young people within its own country, with negative perceptions surrounding how it uses technology as a disruptive influence.
China’s Image Is in the Doldrums Too
While the US may have a brand problem, so too has China. As part of his address to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, President Xi Jinping stated that “Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us.” Yet our data suggest that citizens in other countries believe China oppresses its own people and commits human-rights abuses. These attitudes are apparent even in countries that China has forged new alliances with through trade, investment and financial support. Could it be that China is facing a partial backlash to its “debt-trap diplomacy”?
Almost a third of all respondents think China has put hundreds of thousands of its citizens into prison camps, without fair and proper legal process
While almost a third (31 per cent) of respondents selected China when considering which, if any, governments would be most likely to imprison their citizens en masse, it is significant that more respondents, 37 per cent of them, chose “I don’t know”. Additionally, there was a notable difference in attitudes between citizens in developed markets such as France and Great Britain where 43 per cent chose China, and those in emerging markets, such as South Africa and Nigeria, where just 24 per cent voted for the country.
The data also highlight how countries that have received investment through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remain somewhat sceptical about China’s behaviour towards its own people. While China has committed substantial amounts of money to infrastructure investment, especially in Africa, through the initiative over the past 20 years, public sentiment towards China in those same countries is not always positive. For example, an average of 25 per cent of respondents in long-standing (joined before 2018) BRI nations said that China should be restricted in how much economic cooperation it can have with their own country, compared to 20 per cent in newer BRI countries (joined after 2018). Do countries become more wary of Chinese interference the longer they remain part of the BRI?
Negative views towards China among the world’s most developed economies are particularly high. Our data show that G7 countries are generally critical of China’s behaviour towards its own citizens, but there are slight differences in attitudes within the G7. For example, respondents in Italy, a country that has active participation in the BRI, were less sceptical. Despite China’s efforts to forge new geopolitical alliances, people around the world remain critical of its actions. This leaves the door open for liberal democracies to forge progressive agendas that can foster trust among countries around the world, including through the use of technology, and influence whether technology comes to be seen as a positive or negative influence.
The majority of respondents from the overall sample in the surveyed countries acknowledge that cyberattacks, propaganda and disinformation intended to interfere with or influence election results are now tools commonly used by governments, marking a new era of geopolitical conflict.
While most respondents from emerging markets could not clearly identify which states are most likely to use technology to influence elections in other countries, those who did lean towards the US over others. This contrasts with the perception in the G7, where the majority of respondents believe that Russia and China are the nations most likely to undertake this kind of activity.
Despite allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections, only 22 per cent of respondents in emerging markets believe Russia engaged in technology-based propaganda and disinformation to interfere with a national election. Russia may increasingly be seen as a dwindling influence in these economies, which are increasingly focused on the US and China as the two main global economic engines.
Respondents in emerging markets couldn’t clearly identify which states are most likely to use technology to influence elections but they lean towards the US, in contrast with G7 respondents who choose Russia
China, Russia and the US are equally as likely to have committed cyberattacks to steal information from or disrupt life in another country, according to respondents in emerging markets
As previous survey results have highlighted, higher technology use in countries can correlate to deeper mistrust: in 2020, for example, heavy social-media users were less trusting of governments and the authorities than non-users, and more likely to believe that “a lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest.”
Ours has become an era in which technology is regarded as a tool of geopolitical conflict – used across borders to spread disinformation, propaganda and disrupt the economic life of others – rather than a tool for economic and social change, which levels up inequalities and creates opportunities for all. Suspicion and concerns over how our authorities use technology at the geopolitical level – and across borders – could also cascade down to the individual level, creating reticence around the sharing of personal data, for instance. Used fairly and responsibly, technology has the potential to make government radically more accountable, transparent and responsive – but the issue of trust will need to be addressed for this potential to be fully realised.
Editor's Note: Some data in charts and text may vary slightly due to rounding. Participants for the survey were selected from an online panel, which should be taken into account in responses to questions about online activities, particularly in countries with low levels of internet access. More information about the research and results can be found here.