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Foreign Policy

Stories Behind the Pensive Poll Figures

Feb 24, 2021
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

A United States Pew Research Center poll released on August 13, 2020 revealed that only 26 percent of the American public held a positive view of China. This figure failed to reflect the true friendly feelings that the Chinese and American people feel towards each other. The poll was often quoted by scholars to describe the discouraging environment of the Sino-U.S. relations under the Trump administration. In the information age, polling remains an important tool for understanding public opinion, but it is more revealing to try and understand the stories that shape it.

First, polls change often, and in historical observation, polls on the topic of China always change in relation to the state of Sino-US relations. The actions and words of government leaders have a powerful impact on the views of their constituents.

When bilateral relations are warm, the percentage of American public having a positive view of China goes up, and vice versa. So seeing only 26 percent of the American public having a positive view of China underlines the fact that the bilateral relations were bad at the time. This assessment is in line with the realities of the deteriorating Sino-U.S. relationship.   

Second, the remarkable demonization of China by the Trump administration should not be underestimated. For the sake of their domestic political agenda, former president Trump, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and other anti-China officials made constant effort to villainize China on a wide-range of issues, often deceiving or misleading American public. According to a CNN report on January 17, 2021, Trump, ever the exaggerator, has been quoted well over 100 times asserting that, before his presidency, the U.S. had a $500 billion trade deficit with China for years—even though the structural pre-Trump deficit never even reached $400 billion. It can be inferred that Trump’s lies were intended to justify his unwelcome trade war against China and to cajole American voters into scapegoating China for American economic pitfalls. In order to divert the blame for his own mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump again found a solution in China, calling the disease the “China virus” instead of using the academically circulated COVID-19 used by the whole world. Since then, it’s been reported that hate crimes have risen against Asian Americans by 1900%.

Pompeo, as Trump’s top diplomat, conducted his diplomacy with China by focusing on differences between the two countries and by refusing dialogues, exchanges and cooperation. He has been condemned and repudiated by Chinese government officials, media and scholar. No doubt, this kind of tit-for tat exchange had an outsized effect on public opinion in the U.S. and could have affected the poll results. It was crystal clear that taking advantage of the differences in ideology and political system between the two countries is one of Pompeo’s tactics for his domestic political gains and for sabotaging Sino-US relations.

Third, public knowledge of China is very low in the U.S. It is believed that the 26 percent mentioned above is generally composed of those Americans who have personal experience with and interest in China, either through tourism, scholarly exchanges or on-the-ground research. They have made their own judgments of China. But regrettably, many American voters have little knowledge of China. It would be a start for Americans to become familiar with famous Chinese reading materials, “The Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow, “The Long March, The Untold Story” by Harrison Salisbury and “The Governance of China” by Xi Jinping. At the very least reading these books would convey that China is a peace-loving country, and a friend of the U.S. The Chinese Communist Party is the political party in power in China that serves the people and is supported by the people.

It's possible that more intercultural education and people-to-people exchange could improve the relationship between the two nations. China’s long history and culture is clearly not something most Americans have a chance to experience. However, with the rise of extremist conservatism in recent years, it may take quite some time to build those bridges. Trump’s “America First” message represents nationalistic viewpoints and populism. In his view, the U.S. is superb and exceptional, while other countries should fall in line with their principles. In fact, instead of facilitating exchange, the Trump administration did all it could to hinder the people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, while Chinese efforts to tell China stories to the American public leave much to be desired. Many agree that it is not an easy matter for Americans to systematically learn foreign cultures. Cooperative cultural exchange programs between China and the U.S. remain under serious restrictions, implemented by the Trump administration. They abused the concept of national security to politicize bilateral cultural exchanges, which led to the forced suspension of a number of cultural exchange programs and to the political ill-treatment of innocent Chinese and Chinese-American scholars and scientists. Those Americans who have objective views of China often feel the pressure when they want to speak out the truth.

To promote the healthy development of the Sino-U.S. relations under the Biden administration, it is highly necessary to create a favorable public opinion environment for both countries. With these efforts from both sides, people will have more positive and objective views of each other, resulting in a more rational and healthy relationship.

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