Survey: US Perceptions of China in the Early Biden Era

Survey: US Perceptions of China in the Early Biden Era
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

Our survey indicates a broadly shared concern about China in the United States, but not necessarily a consensus on what to do in regards to the economic challenges China poses.

Negative opinions of China are at an all-time high in the United States. According to a March 2021 Gallup poll, 79% of Americans polled gave an unfavorable rating to China, the highest unfavorable rating since Gallup began tracking in 1978 and over twenty percentage points above the immediate post-Tiananmen Square unfavorability ratings. 

The same poll shows that 45% of Americans now consider China as the greatest enemy of the United States in the world, a 23% increase from just one year earlier. Pew Research Center finds that negative views of China have increased 20% since Trump took office and 2021 surveys show this trend continuing after Biden’s inauguration.

Much of the focus on these declining views has been on economic factors, although perceptions of China’s involvement in Covid-19, the Hong Kong protests, and the human rights violations of Uyghurs in Xinjiang do little to improve public perceptions. Declining perceptions are complicated further by the U.S. trade war with China initiated under the Trump administration, which characterized foreign imports as a “national security threat” and hampered global trade and investment through retaliatory action across multiple industries and economic sectors. 

While Biden has not unilaterally removed the China tariffs enacted by Trump, much to the chagrin of U.S. businesses, Biden has all but rejected the idea of “decoupling” from China. Instead, the Biden administration includes more nuanced geopolitical intervention, including blocking a Chinese equity firm’s purchase of a South Korean semiconductor company.

To unpack public perceptions of China, especially in terms of tariffs and trade wars, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling.

First, we asked respondents to rate their feelings on China on a 1-10 scale, with one being very negative and 10 very positive. Overall, the average evaluation was 4.46, with Democrats more neutral to China (5.14) compared to Republicans (3.66), consistent with rhetoric from party officials but also the greater frequency of China references in conservative media. 

Admittedly, what is motivating these ratings is less clear, as we assume economic, political, and social factors all at play. For example, Trump openly referring to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu” exacerbated public perceptions of the virus’s origin in China, while the Chinese government’s opacity with regard to the origin of Covid gave credence to a series of “lab leak” conspiracy theories.

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We also asked two related economic questions: “I support continued tariffs on imported Chinese goods” and “Who do you believe benefits more from the current trade war between the U.S. and China?” Here we find nearly two-thirds of respondents (65.44%) opposed continued tariffs, with support higher among Republicans (44.34%) than Democrats (30.45%).

Further analysis shows that support for continued tariffs corresponded with a statistically significant lower evaluation of China, even after controlling for partisanship and demographic factors (age, gender, education, income).

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Potential explanations for American citizens’ disapproval of continued tariffs may be perceptions that neither China nor the U.S. emerged as a clear winner in the trade war. 

Our own research suggests that the public is unclear who benefits from the trade war. We find overall that respondents were more likely to believe China benefited more (30.24%) compared to the U.S. (24.64%), yet 24.64% thought both benefited equally and 20.48% thought they were worse off. 

As a result, it is understandable that Americans may see ending tariffs and other facets of the trade war as beneficial in the long term. In regards to the actual effectiveness of the tariffs, a study by the Brookings Institution argued that the tariffs had no practical benefit in trade agreements or national security.

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Overall, our results together with previous survey research suggest a broad concern about China, but not necessarily a consensus on what to do in regards to the economic challenges China poses. As expected, tariffs have failed to provide a simple fix, while returning to a pre-Trump policy focusing on engagement in the hopes that this will lead to Chinese policies more favorable to U.S. interests seems too antiquated to meet current challenges. Instead, policies towards China must address public economic and security concerns without engaging in self-harm or scapegoating China for acting in its own national interests. Until then, public sentiment regarding China is unlikely to improve in the short-term.

Andi Dahmer is the Exchange Program Manager at the World Affairs Council of Kentucky. She is a 2019 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University and a 2018 Truman Scholar. 

Noah Lyles is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Political Science and Chinese, with a minor in East Asian Studies. 

Patrick Schaller is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs and History.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty

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