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Society & Culture

The Hollowing-out of America’s Middle Class and Parallel Increases in Anti-China Sentiment

Apr 12, 2024
  • Mallie Prytherch

    Researcher at Centre on Contemporary China and the World, University of Hong Kong

middle class.jpg

(File photo)

For many Americans, election season has turned into a never-ending process. The 24-hour news cycle and the expanded use of social media for campaigning means that there are few places that Americans can go to escape the perpetual election rhetoric. On the positive side, the average American is more politically involved than any time in the last fifty years. On the other hand, inundation by political messaging has a significant negative effect on health and wellbeing.

Moreover, emotions that are related to politics, specifically anger, differ in composition to emotions that are related to personal life. Adults who can make distinctions between anger, guilt, anxiety, and despair in their personal lives often cannot make the same distinctions when it comes to political emotions. The overlap between anger and despair, for example, makes it more difficult to separate negative events from their proposed causes—making it more likely that despair over economic conditions will turn into anger when politicized.

Politicians worldwide have consciously or unconsciously utilized this phenomenon for their own benefit. Former president Donald Trump and the wave of “Make America Great Again” conservatives are particularly adept at motivating and directing anger. President Joe Biden, while not as skilled, has plenty of surrogates to act on his behalf. As we move into the 2024 presidential election, it is likely that the uptick in political messaging will increase negative emotions in Americans.

In recent years, and especially since the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the common rallying cries for political anger in America has been anti-China sentiment. Biden and Trump share rhetorical and policy continuity regarding China. Donald Trump’s 2016 indictment, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing… We’re like the piggy bank that’s being robbed,” and Joe Biden’s recent claim, “We’re standing up against China’s unfair economic practices… our trade deficit with China is down to the lowest point in over a decade… we’re in a stronger position to win the competition for the 21st Century against China,” are worded quite differently, but they carry the same message: China is a threat to the U.S. economy.

Like all good political slogans, there is a kernel of truth in the argument that the growth of China’s middle class is adversely affecting America’s middle class. China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 opened the American market to a flood of relatively cheap Chinese goods. This was both positive and negative for the U.S. Americans were able to consume at a level previously unattainable to the majority of the lower and middle classes, but domestic companies that were suddenly unable to compete effectively in the market laid off employees and closed factories.

Studies have found that when considering the health of the economy as a whole, “Chinese import penetration generated benefits to U.S. consumers through lower prices equal to USD $101,250 per lost manufacturing job.” However, similar to the society-wide economic benefits of both legal and illegal immigration, the counterfactual is much harder for Americans to “feel” than the real-life loss of jobs. While China’s ascension to the WTO increased the wellbeing of the average American, specific geographically concentrated groups in politically important states experienced few or even negative effects on wellbeing (e.g. Appalachia). Today, there is bipartisan agreement that the U.S. made a significant error in supporting China’s entry into the WTO.

Moreover, the size of America’s middle class has stayed roughly the same since 2001, while China’s has grown almost 10 times (see Table 1). In 2023, only 36 percent of Americans believed that the American Dream was still valid. A staggering 68 percent believed that today’s children will be financially worse off than their parents. Politically, perception of economic growth is more important than reality—only 26 percent of Americans believe that the economy is in recovery, even though it has been gaining ground since 2020.


Share of total population in 2000 (%)

Share of total population in 2018 (%)

Change (% points)

United States








Table 1. Size of the middle class in the U.S. vs. China

This information is not groundbreaking—but it does affect how the presidential election will play out in 2024. Middle class stagnation is especially poignant in the country that invented the “American Dream.” While both Donald Trump and Joe Biden use the argument that China’s economic growth has negatively affected America’s middle class, they disagree when it comes to the methods with which to handle this issue.

The top issues for Americans going into the election are prices/inflation (20%), healthcare (14%), immigration (12%), and the economy/jobs (11%). Foreign policy comes fourteenth, with only 1% of Americans ranking it as their top priority. Nonetheless, since China policy is so intertwined with economic policy in the U.S, it is likely that, regardless of the winner, policy towards China will stay relevant throughout the summer and fall. Polls also show that American voters trust Trump to handle China policy at a significantly higher rate than they trust Biden: 46 percent for Trump to 34 percent for Biden, which explains the difference in approaches to China proposed by the Biden and Trump campaigns.

Since voters trust Trump over Biden when it comes to China, Trump will likely attempt to focus the conversation on China, harnessing anger and proposing external-focused, more aggressive policies, such as his recently proposed 60% tariff rate on all Chinese goods. On the other hand, since voters overall care more about the domestic economy than China, Biden will likely attempt to redirect focus from China to internally-focused policies such as increasing domestic manufacturing capabilities and making markets competitive for American companies.  

Neither president will return America’s China policy to one that allows for any sort of major cooperation. Both Biden and Trump are simply responding to a larger social and structural phenomenon within America, even though they have different ideas on how to do so. As Fudan University Professor Zhao Minghao expressed, “For China, no matter who won[sic] the U.S. presidential election, they would be two ‘bowls of poison’.”  

This trend is likely to continue for the next few years, but it may change in the medium to long run. Young voters in swing states are the most likely of any cohort to vote in 2024 based on economic issues rather than social issues, and they are also the most likely to think the economy is doing poorly. However, they are more likely than older generations to see domestic economic issues as the fault of their own government rather than that of China—only 43 percent support the tariffs imposed by Trump on China, the lowest percentage of support among all age groups. And their disapproval is bipartisan; even a percentage of those that will vote for Trump do not think his 2017 tariffs were good for America. Moreover, among all Americans, young Americans hold the highest percentage of favorable and lowest percentage of unfavorable views of China. Focus groups by the Pew Research Center of young adults in March 2023 showed that young Americans worry about possible threats by China’s military, but also see China as an economic powerhouse.

Of course, it is difficult to predict which trends will continue and which will change. The persistent focus on China within American political rhetoric reflects not only the genuine economic challenges posed by China’s rise but the perception that a developing China is a direct threat to the American economy. As the 2024 election approaches, both Trump and Biden are leveraging the complex feelings Americans have about China, economic anxiety, and national pride to shape their campaigns. However, the structural shifts in the global economy and the internal economic disparities within the U.S. cannot be addressed solely through aggressive foreign policy or political slogans. Beyond the immediacy of electoral politics, there is a growing need for policies that confront the economic challenges faced by the hollowed-out American middle class. In the short-term, the persistent focus on China will continue—but in the long-term, the effectiveness of U.S. policy will hinge on its ability to balance external pressures with internal economic reforms and social cohesion, steering the national discourse towards a more constructive and sustainable path. 

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