President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, 2016. (Gil Corzo/Shutterstock)
Americans don’t like China these days — which is not a good sign for restraint

A pair of national polls reveal approval ratings at historic lows, reflecting growing support for confrontation with Beijing.

At a time when the U.S. and China need cooperation more than ever, a series of recent public opinion polls reveal Americans’ negative views of China have risen to their highest levels in decades. This discouraging reality has been fueled by inflammatory political rhetoric inspired in the United States by the reaction to a rising China, COVID-19, and a downturn in the economy. 

Many Americans, it would seem, think that confronting China should be the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy, according to recent polling.

Favorable views of China among Americans have been on the decline for several years but  fell sharply within the last year from 33 percent to a record low 20 percent, according to a Gallup poll released last week. Several factors account for this drop, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and reports of China’s human rights abuses. The media and politicians have contributed to the negative attitudes by using incendiary rhetoric during the recent elections and since. 

COVID-19, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, spread in part because Chinese officials initially suppressed information on the virus, downplayed its significance, and limited cooperation with experts from outside the country. Top U.S. officials, including former President Trump, seized the opportunity to exploit fears and shift blame to China by referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “Wuhan Flu” once cases started to rise in the United States. 

One study found that the use of terms like “China virus” and increased stigmatized language in the conservative media coincided with an increase in American bias toward Asian American individuals. Placing blame on China ignored the fact that the United States was severely unprepared to handle COVID-19 itself, and contributed to hostile attitudes toward Asian Americans. It did nothing to solve the crisis at home and contributed to further deterioration in U.S.-China relations.

Americans haven’t fully accepted that they no longer dominate the global trade system, but fail to see how misguided economic policy toward China might play out. In another recent poll, this one by the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of respondents mentioned the economy when asked in an open-ended format about the first thing that comes to mind when they think of China.  

Roughly two-thirds of the survey’s respondents described economic relations between the superpowers as “somewhat” or “very” bad. Yet 53 percent of Americans favor getting tougher with China on economic issues. 

Americans must realize that getting tough on China trade will not serve U.S. interests. Diversifying its supply chain should be a priority for the United States, but it is foolish to advocate decoupling from China when the reality is that mutual trade benefits the United States given the interwoven supply chain that requires cooperation by both countries. Doubling down on Trump-era trade policies would only signal that the United States seeks to destroy China’s economic growth and restore itself as the dominant economic and military power in East Asia. Furthermore, economic integration with China remains a worthwhile goal because it gives China a stake in the overall stability of the region and the world and a reason not to use military force against its neighbors, many of which are U.S. allies.

One in five Americans said the first thing that came to mind when they thought of China was human rights concerns, according to the Pew poll. Seventy percent said they would prefer to prioritize human rights, even if it harms bilateral economic relations. The Trump administration declared that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority amounts to genocide, and the systematic crackdown byBeijing on democratic activists in Hong Kong made international headlines. In addition, some survey respondents referred to the lack of political freedom in China, noting the Chinese Communist Party’s practice of detaining political dissidents. This is an area where it is possible to pressure China while cooperating on other issues. The United States should condemn China’s human rights abuses, but that doesn’t mean it needs to continue the trade war.  

Other aggressive policies toward China limit America’s ability to cooperate on issues that require multilateralism, notably climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics. The Chinese foreign ministry has already indicated it will not cooperate on these types of issues if the Biden administration continues treating China like a strategic adversary. 

In a country where public opinion is supposed to influence policy, preventing a new Cold War with China means convincing Americans that a belligerent strategy toward China will not serve U.S. interests. The inevitable U.S.-China competition is not a zero-sum game. The two great powers should compete only where necessary and seize opportunities to cooperate on common interests. But considering that Americans who registered their distrust and anger in the poll were likely responding in part to political rhetoric, it is going to take an effort to change perceptions and the way we talk about these issues to turn it around.

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