December 18, 2014

Article at Washington Post

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Why a Communist dictator may be the world’s most popular leader – at home and abroad

Chinese leader Xi Jinping shakes hands with President Obama in the White House. A new survey shows Xi to be significantly more popular than the U.S. President globally. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING – He presides over a one-party state that jails more journalists than any other on the planet, silences its critics ruthlessly and censors the Internet extensively. But China’s President Xi Jinping is not only wildly popular in his own country, he could be the most popular world leader globally.

Research by Japanese research firm GMO — and analyzed by Anthony Saich at the Harvard Kennedy School — showed Xi scoring the highest favorable rating among 10 world leaders, based on a survey of citizens from 30 countries across the globe.

Xi topped the tables domestically and internationally, scoring an average of 9 out of 10 among his own people, and 7.3 out of 10 globally, ahead of India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a global score of 7.2, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who scored 7.0.


It is no real surprise that Xi’s scores highly among his own people: his far-reaching crackdown on official corruption is very popular here, and his folksy style, exemplified by a 2013 visit to a steamed bun shop, has made him seem more down-to-earth than many of his predecessors.

Nor do most Chinese people share the distaste for one-party rule that many in the West feel: but whether that is more down to the Party’s achievements in promoting economic growth, maintaining stability and restoring national pride, or its relentless propaganda and silencing of alternative viewpoints, is something of a mute point.

But it might be more surprising to some that Xi is well received abroad, especially in the West, where China’s efforts to project its soft power are often mocked. But as Saich, of the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, concludes “responses are influenced by geopolitics.”


The survey show’s Xi scoring well in Pakistan and Russia, as well as in Tanzania and Kenya and, to a slightly lesser extent, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. These range from geopolitical allies to beneficiaries of Chinese investment and countries where China’s economic model is attractive. He fares less well in rival nations like Japan and Vietnam, and in Western Europe.

The survey has several other interesting findings. Aside from Xi, the next most popular leader domestically is Vladimir Putin. Citizens in democratic nations, where politics is contested and the press more open, Saich concludes, tend to be more critical of their leaders and policies than in “those nations where politics is less contested” and the media more influenced by the government.

But Putin does not share Xi’s global popularity, scoring bottom of the 10 leaders on the international rankings, with a score of 6.0. After his annexation of Crimea and military adventurism in eastern Ukraine, Putin is unpopular in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and above all in Russia’s neighbor, Finland. Outside Russia, he scores best in Vietnam and China.


Among more democratic leaders, Modi does well, ranking third most popular at home and second most popular abroad, after his landslide election victory in May. That Modi’s victory has brought a surge in optimism is also evidenced by the fact that India tops the rankings as the country whose people are happiest about their own development path. That also might come as a surprise to foreigners who often denigrate the country’s vibrant but unruly democracy.

Angela Merkel comes third globally, but that score is dragged down by unpopularity in Russia, with whose government she has recently taken a tougher line, and in Spain, where Germany’s austere financial policies are blamed for prolonging an economic slump. But Merkel is otherwise well regarded, ranking first in 13 countries, and among the top three leaders in 23 nations.

President Barack Obama ranks 7th in terms of domestic popularity, with a score of 6.2, and 6th abroad, with a score of 6.6. He can at least take comfort from the fact that, in both tables, he outscores Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande.