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Study Shows Many See China Becoming World's Leading Power

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting in California on June 7
The United States is still the world's top economy, but China is catching up and will eventually overtake it.

That's one of the main findings of a fresh survey of global public opinion by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

The survey was conducted in 39 countries, and involved some 40,000 people.

Bruce Stokes, the director of the global economic program at the Pew Research Center, spoke to RFE/RL on July 18 about the findings.

"Opinion of the United States still remains fairly strong -- much stronger than it was, say, under the Bush administration in its latter years. Yet, the opinion of the U.S. relative to that of China may be changing a bit. Increasingly people see China as the world's leading economic power and they expect that China will surpass the United States as the world's leading superpower at some point in the future," Stokes explained.

Slightly more than a third of respondents thought China was already the world's leading economic power, up from 20 percent in 2008 when Pew conducted similar research.

In the United States, opinion was split. Nearly half said it was inevitable China would overtake the United States. About the same number said it never would.

However, the survey also found China's growing economic power is not making it more popular around the globe.

Only half of respondents had a favorable view of China, compared to 63 percent for the United States.

China scored much lower than the United States in areas linked to culture, business, and the spreading of ideas.

But Stokes says Chinese "soft power" is catching up.

"The global competition between China and the United States for the hearts and minds of people around the world is full-on. We are in a global competition. And while I think it would be wrong to say the United States is losing that competition, it would be right to say that China is catching up," Stokes said.

In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, favorable opinions of China are on the rise, but lower than those of the United States. Stokes says this is likely linked to China's sizable investments in both regions.

"Chinese influence [and] the appreciation of China is fairly strong in Latin America and Africa. Actually, one might expect it to be not quite this strong. There is a fair appreciation for Chinese soft power in both of these regions. In part that may be due to growing Chinese trade relations with many of these countries and growing Chinese foreign investment in these countries."

In all but two countries surveyed, a majority of respondents said Washington respects its citizens' rights.

Many said they were confident President Barack Obama would do the right thing in world affairs, including 88 percent in Germany and 83 percent in France.

The survey, however, was conducted before the former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of U.S. global secret surveillance programs.

The survey also found that U.S. drone strikes are widely unpopular around the world.

"We asked a specific question about drone strikes in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, and what we found was that in most countries -- in the overwhelming number of countries -- people opposed drone strikes. Particularly in Pakistan they opposed drone strikes," Stokes explained.

Stokes said the survey in Russia turned up some surprising results.

"I think there are a number of striking findings from Russia. One is that opinion of the U.S. has actually creeped up a bit since Obama became president, but at the same time, the opinion about Obama has actually gone down since he was elected. So there seems to be things moving in opposite directions and that's not typical. We've seen around the world for the most part that perceptions of the U.S. and perceptions of the U.S. president tend to go together."

With reporting by "The Washington Post"