On April 28, 2022, the Pew Research Center announced its annual poll results on Sino-American relations, which found that 82% of Americans held an unfavourable view of China – 6% higher as compared with a year ago.
62% of the surveyed declared that the primary, most serious problem for the U.S. was China’s partnership with Russia, with the latter embroiled in a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. 47% of the respondents expressed reservations about China’s involvement in politics in the U.S. (though the evidence of foreign ‘infiltration’ – as with claims concerning alleged American interference with Chinese politics – seems limited at best, and overblown at worst). “Value-centred” concerns, such as those revolving around China’s Taiwan and Hong Kong policies, have taken a relative backseat to the above concerns.
Criticisms of polls such as these are frequent and aplenty – with allegations of distortions to sample size and methodological limitations. Indeed, Pew themselves acknowledged the difficulty of accurate year-on-year assessments and comparisons concerning American mass attitudes towards China over the past two decades, given the shifts in sampling method from phone surveys to online panels.
Yet we should make no mistake when it comes to the overarching trends – there exists a downward trend in American public attitudes towards China, and such a trend is likely reciprocated by their counterparts across the ocean. Such antagonistic sentiments do not bode well for Sino-American relations or the world at large, as I have written elsewhere. Yet when it comes to the specific survey here, there are three core takeaways that Chinese political and intellectual leaders alike would benefit from noting.
First, the impact of the Russo-Ukrainian war on Sino-American relations is complex, multifaceted, and likely to evolve dynamically over time. On one hand, there has been a significant surge in the number of American citizens who view Russia as an enemy – a sizeable increase from 41% surveyed in January, to 70% in March. In the meanwhile, the share of those who posit that China is an enemy has fallen from 35% to 25%. Superficially, it seems, Russian aggression and military action have significantly defused the perception within America of China’s being an imminent and systemic rival that it must take head-on – this offers some glimmer of hope to those who are keen on rebuilding better relations with America within the Chinese economy and system (who nevertheless may not comprise the mainstream).
Yet this is only one half of the picture. The other half sees significant numbers amongst the American public, attributing the actions committed by Russia in Ukraine – including some of the most visceral and brutal episodes of force deployment – to Chinese support. As Ambassador Qin Gang pointed out in a lucid piece for The National Interest, Beijing has sought to insist that it “advocates upholding international law and universally recognized norms governing international relations.” In the eyes of many in America, however, China’s at-times amorphous, at-other-times complex position on Ukraine has culminated at the widespread perception that Sino-Russian relations lie at the core of Russia’s ongoing actions in Ukraine. In many ways, China thus suffers from the ‘spillover effects’ of being dragged into a conflict where it – frankly – has neither a military presence nor interest in taking the side of any particular party. It would benefit China’s interests were the crisis to be resolved amicably and swiftly, with particular attention paid to the humanitarian concerns and interests of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Any other alternative – including escalation, or involvement of more military alliances and side parties – would be deleterious to both China and the world. In any case, vast swathes of American attitudes towards China are unlikely to improve significantly so long as the Ukraine crisis remains at the top of political and media priorities.
Second, there exist apparent divergences amongst the American public opinion. Residents of more liberal states, as well as younger professionals, tend to view China more positively, as compared with those in more conservative interior states – though notable exceptions can be found in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, states that have benefited from long-standing trade ties with China.
The attitude divergence reflects two important variables at hand here. The primary variable constitutes age – those who are younger, as millennials, Gen-Z individuals, are more likely to find China a prospective space for economic opportunities, partner to engage on fronts ranging from start-ups to education, as well as a generally exciting destination to travel to (once the borders, in fact, reopen – which is likely to take a long while). Older, more reserved generations tend to view China through starker ideological lenses. 52% of Americans aged 65 and older deem Beijing’s relations with Taiwan a very serious problem, whilst only 26% of those aged 18-29 report the same.
The second variable constitutes political views – 89% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters tend to view China through a negative lens, whereas 79% share the same view amongst Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters. Democrats would also view China’s economic utility and value for American firms in a significantly more positive light, as compared with Republicans, who have adopted a brand of scepticism that seems informed in equal parts by scaremongering over Chinese competition, and dismissing economic engagement with China as empowering bad-faith actors.
It would be premature to conclude that the above observations hold in a statistically and causally rigorous sense. There exists a multiplicity of possible explanations concerning why the above trends are true, which in turn influences how likely it is for such trends – if at all – to continually sway China’s relations with America at large. Yet if there is one thing that is relatively certain, it is that the American public is by no means homogenous, and that meaningful differences exist across generations and political cleavages that Beijing should take seriously – as opposed to conceptualising America as a monolithic, anti-China bloc.
Finally, and this is a point that is perhaps slightly adjacent to the bulwark of the poll surveys – yet remains deeply relevant. The extent to which China is viewed in a positive light is clearly correlated with the extent to which it remains coupled and open to the world at large. Younger folks are interested in China because of the travel opportunities and income potential offered by the market. This would become mute considerations very quickly, however, if few could travel in and out of China without undergoing elaborate, extensive quarantine restrictions.
China and America are clearly not, as of today, locked in a New Cold War. China remains a prime beneficiary of more organic, bidirectional, and constructive trade and financial ties with the U.S., whilst the U.S. benefits no less from China’s expansive and highly potent markets, with Chinese consumers playing a pivotal role in fuelling America’s economic growth. Both American and Chinese senior leaders have gone to painstaking lengths to emphasise that the current state of Sino-American relations should not be viewed as a Cold War.
Yet, as Professor Jia Qingguo’s article for the International Review somberly argued, the “Thucydides trap proposition”-informed thinking on both sides of the Pacific, is driving a dangerous downward spiral to bilateral relations that would, if uncontained and unmitigated, result in grim consequences. Repairing China’s image in America takes work – but is fundamentally aligned with the interests of not just China, but Sino-American ties and the world, at large.