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Foreign Policy

Beijing and Washington Must Take Seriously Domestic Perceptions of Each Other

Jan 18, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    DPhil in Politics candidate and Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford

A recent survey conducted by the Carter Center and RIWI in September 2021 shed light into the state of China-U.S. relations as they stand. The results suggest two striking propositions: 

Firstly, that Chinese attitudes towards America are highly unfavourable. Per the survey, 62% of the surveyed internet-using population holds a negative view of the United States, which should be juxtaposed against – as Director Yawei Liu notes – the staggering 96% in a Global Times survey last year; the percentage nevertheless remains rather high.  Such attitudinal unfavourability is especially the case amongst – strikingly – younger generations and individuals with low- to mid-incomes – though, as with all interpretations of statistical analysis, the usual caveats concerning confounders and overlapping explanations (e.g., generational vs. cohort effects) apply. More study is needed to establish the precise explanatory factors undergirding the results here. 

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, nearly 80% of the surveyed believe China is viewed very favourably or favourably internationally. Intriguingly, though perhaps it is premature to draw such conclusions conclusively, there exists once again a tentative polarity in the distribution of results in relation to income: groups with the highest percentages of individuals who perceive China’s image as “very favourable” comprise those earning over 300,000 yuan per year, and those who earn less than 15,000 yuan per year. 

Their beliefs stand starkly in juxtaposition against the high levels of unfavourable views of China across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. Notably, the survey accorded limited to no room to countries in the Global South – including vast swathes of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa; yet one fact is unmissable: many amongst the populations of advanced industrial democracies seem wary of China’s ascent. 

Hence consider a further proposition – that China’s international reputation has soured considerably over recent years. This should be no news to many who have been watching closely Sino-American interactions. A Pew Research Center survey from March 2021 found that roughly nine in ten American adults consider China a competitor or an enemy – as opposed to a partner. 

A significant proportion of those in the Pew survey support America in adopting a tougher and more strident emphasis upon human rights – plausibly at the expense of economic ties (70%), decoupling in academic exchanges and admission of Chinese students (55%), and embracing a tougher stance with China on economic issues (53%). The animosity espoused by Chinese nationals is indeed reciprocated, or so it seems. 

The three propositions above present a worrying picture for Sino-American relations. Irrespective of whether one is a “Hawk/Dove”, “Bull/Bear” on China, the U.S., or beyond, it should be rather obvious that one has good grounds to be worried, and few grounds to be optimistic. 

Three dangers arise from the duality of antagonistic perceptions towards one another, and the seeming perception gap between Chinese netizens and overseas populations. Firstly, both Beijing and Washington are at risk of falling prey to populist discourses that culminate at misjudgment of the other side’s intentions. Many amongst the Chinese public genuinely believe – as opposed to being “brainwashed”, per the extreme characterisations of some – that America is a condescending, imperialist bully, one that takes pride for excluding China off the political radar. On the other hand, a dangerous consensus seems to be brewing amongst many in the American intelligentsia and political community, that China is ostensibly the greatest threat to the global political order in the 21st century, and seeks to export its distinct brand of values in ways that would undermine Western political logic. 

These perceptions cannot be underestimated, and they can come to dominate discussions over foreign policy, in ways that hinder a mediated peace. Foreign policy negotiations are complex and require nuance. The broad-based brushes and sweeping generalisations in both countries’ public perceptions of the other obscure what both governments and peoples truly want. 

Secondly, the blind-spots of some in China towards their international perceptions are likely to be mirrored by many in America – though a survey to that effect has yet to be carried out recently. American politicians and policymakers enjoy framing their foreign policy through lenses of absolutist and universal justice – that their actions are vehicles of democracy, human rights, and freedom. Yet such perceptions could not be further from the attitudes on the ground in many that have found their lives disrupted by the extensive military campaigns waged by America abroad. 

This is not to say that America was unjustified in launching such attacks – especially in instances where egregious human rights violations did in fact occur, and intervention was necessary as a means of remedying such injustices. This is, however, to suggest that the American public and elite “gets” foreign policy wrong more frequently than they ideally should – consider, for instance, Rush Doshi’s well-researched but plausibly hyperbolised charge that China has a “long game” for expanding its global influence inexorably, or Michael Pillsbury’s assertion that China is engaged in a “hundred-year marathon”. 

Moreover, it also reveals a structural weakness in Washington’s approach to Beijing – much of its rhetoric, policies, and petitions are aimed towards convincing the domestic audience in America that the Capitol elite are “doing something” about China – for one, the recent acts passed over China’s actions in Xinjiang, as well as the calls for boycotting the Olympics, have been driven by the idea that “doing something is better than nothing.” But this does not hold true if the outcomes further entrench defensive aggression from within the ruling party. On that note, too, such actions can’t successfully convince ordinary folks in China that America is not bent on sabotaging the internal politics of their country. Call this a misunderstanding, or a damning indictment – either way, it is clear that hubris is symmetric across both sides of the Pacific. That is again deeply concerning. 

Finally, to put these attitudes in perspective. At least one set of casualties has been remarkably apparent over the past two years of downturn in Sino-American relations: civil society exchanges. Journalists and academics alike are harassed for they are suspected and accused of being foreign spies, agents of interference for the other side – consider the trial in America of Hu Anming, a Chinese Canadian professor charged under the “China Initiative”, as well as the repatriation or detention of American journalists suspected of carrying out espionage activities on Chinese soil. Ordinary cultural dialogue and exchanges have become politicised through a mixture of totalising, supercilious rhetoric, and attempts to portray the other side as motivated by pure, unbridled evil. The deterioration in the level of civility, especially in the aftermath of Trump’s ascent to the White House, leaves very little confidence amongst those who are hoping for a return to normalcy in Beijing-Washington exchanges. 

The least leaders could do, then, is to seek to address some of the more virulent attitudes being espoused by their own citizens. Beijing possesses the political and discursive wherewithal to do so relatively successfully; Washington, on the other hand, must wrestle with the dual Leviathan of social media networks and populist politics on the ground. One thing remains clear: a moratorium to Sino-American hostility cannot occur without efforts from citizens of both countries. 

There are items and issues that we can affect; that we can transform; that we can ameliorate – and then there are problems that we cannot. In lieu of an all-or-nothing, absolutist approach to change, citizens and political elites should focus their energy on gradualist, progressive changes, whether it be in improving the human rights and conditions for disenfranchised groups, or in pushing back against arbitrary detentions and McCarthyist bandwagoning. Be firm, but also be realistic. 

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