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Sri Lankan Public Opinion

As the American presidential election finally winds down with what appears to be a grudging concession (of sorts) by soon-to-be former President Donald J. Trump, I’ve been thinking about the fickleness of public opinion. Despite pollsters’ valiant attempts to explain and predict the collective attitude of large numbers of people, they often get it wrong, either by mis-measuring the distribution of opinions, or by interpreting accurate data incorrectly. One of the biggest problems is that public opinion can be extraordinarily fickle, especially during, after, and around national security crises. We like to think that there is some stability to public opinion, but in some cases, that kind of stability simply does not exist. One example that stood out to me recently was Sri Lanka. In early 2015, long-time wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election to his rival, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa had led government forces to bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, some 26 years after the insurgents first launched their war of independence. After his victory, Rajapaksa oversaw a tightening of autocratic rule, cracking down on dissent from within Sri Lanka’s minority populations (Tamils and Muslims), as well as within the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist community. One of Rajapaksa’s biggest Achilles heels in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, however, was his heavy reliance on Chinese-funded debt to launch major Sri Lankan infrastructure projects. In the months leading up to the 2015 election, Rajapaksa’s critics zeroed in allegations of corruption, many linked to the Chinese construction projects. Fast forward four years, however, and Rajapaksa was once again elected president. According to the New York Times, public anger at...
Global Reputation of the Belt and Road Initiative, Part Two

Global Reputation of the Belt and Road Initiative, Part Two

In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about public opinion in the developing world towards China’s Belt and Road initiative. Much more remains to be said, and I’m going through the literature carefully to summarize what we know. Eventually, my company, Azimuth Social Research, will write a report with our colleagues at OnGlobalLeadership, a consulting and thought leadership firm specializing in China.  For the moment, I want to talk about US expert opinion towards China’s massive infrastructural investment in low-and-middle-income countries, as well as the US government’s nascent response.  US Experts’ Ambivalence Although there is plenty of public opinion data from Pew and others on the American public’s attitudes towards China in general, I have yet to find substantial data on US public attitudes towards the Belt and Road Initiative in particular. I’m still looking, but there doesn’t seem to be much. And if my own social and professional circles are anything to go by, most Americans have never even heard of BRI, making it hard to ask for their views. People in this country know that China is on the move economically but think mostly about its investments in the US and Europe, rather than in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa.  The US foreign policy community is a different beast, of course, as it is both socialized and paid to have well-formed opinions about this kind of thing. In 2016, a report by the Institute for China-America Studies “on the attitudes of strategic studies and international political economy experts” towards the Belt and Road Initiative suggested that “the overall response [of these experts] to BRI” was at...

From Qual to Quant and Back

I started my research career as a research consultant for Human Rights Watch in Israel and the Palestinian territories. My “data” came from what qualitative research:  lengthy, face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable people such as politicians, lawyers, human rights activists and ordinary citizens who have either witnessed, or personally experienced, interesting events. (There are other kinds of qualitative research, of course – focus groups, ethnography, journal entries, and more). Interview-based research is physically and emotionally demanding. It requires building a network of contacts to gain access to the right people; persuading those people to trust and speak with you, often for hours; engaging in emotionally intense, face-to-face discussions; carefully building trust and rapport; and then analyzing piles of typed transcripts, scribbled notes, or taped conversations. You either furiously write during the interview while also trying to listen, engage, and come up with new questions, or desperately try to remember as many details as you can to record in writing later. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to tape the conversation and even hire someone to produce a written transcript. Then, however, you are faced with hundreds of pages to wade through. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s I did interviews of this sort in multiple countries. Often, I used a translator, which adds complexity to the rapport-building exercise but also gives you more time to take notes during the interview, a research companion to talk about the work, and someone to help you navigate the process of finding the right people to speak with. My first translator was a Palestinian journalist, Walid Battrawi, now an important media figure in Ramallah, capital...