Thursday, March 31, 2022

Views of China Remain at Record Low, More See China’s Military as “Critical” Threat

A post on Gallup News’ Twitter account releasing their study on threats to the United States. Image credit: Gallup News Twitter account 

In Gallup’s latest annual World Affairs poll, conducted from February 1-17, the American public’s opinion of China remains at a historic low. The poll, conducted partly during the 2022 Winter Olympics, found that 79 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of China, with 41 percent answering “very unfavorable.” Only 20 percent of respondents have a “favorable” view of China. The numbers remain largely unchanged from the 2021 poll.  

China’s favorability rating is at its lowest since Gallup started to poll American attitudes towards the country in 1979. An on-going trade imbalance, the COVID-19 pandemic, and alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang likely all contributed to unfavorable opinions. In a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent viewed China’s human rights policies as a serious problem. 

The Gallup poll also found that Americans view China as a “critical” threat to US security. While more respondents identified terrorism (including cyber, international, and domestic) and the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea as critical threats, anxiety over China’s military power outranked the spread of infectious diseases and climate change in perceptions of being a critical threat. When given a list of possible threats to US interests, 67 percent said that China’s military power is a “critical” threat and 29 percent ranked it as “important;” only 4 percent characterized it as “unimportant.” The concern reached a historic high and even outstripped worries over military threat from Russia. The threat of China’s economic power is also considered “critical” by 57 percent of respondents and “important” by 34 percent. However, concern over China’s economic power fell from 63 percent in 2021.  

From Gallup’s February 1-17 survey, Americans’ favorability of China from 1979-2022. The poll was conducted from February 1-17 via telephone interviews with 1,008 adults and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. Image credit: Gallup [PDF, 873 KB] 

A similar poll by Pew Research conducted before the 2022 Beijing Olympics asked Americans if they see China as a partner, competitor, or enemy. The majority, 54 percent, saw China as a competitor; 35 percent answered as an enemy. Only 9 percent saw China as a partner. These opinions remained largely unchanged from 2021, when the views as competitor and enemy were 55 percent and 34 percent, respectively. 

The recently released polls were conducted in January and February, prior to the Russia invasion of Ukraine. China has since publicly supported Russia’s position while amplifying disinformation domestically. It is likely China’s favorability among Americans will suffer further as it embraces stronger anti-Western and anti-United States rhetoric. 

A different time: in 2017, Gallup polling found US attitudes to China to be at their highest point. Image credit: CGTN Twitter account 

The change in US leadership in 2021 did not bring a reset, or significant improvements, in the government’s official stance toward China as some had hoped it would. President Biden has made adjustments to policies inherited from the Trump administration while adopting a less incendiary tone. The Biden administration, however, has continued tough positions on trade negotiations and restrictions on key technologies while imposing more sanctions against human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.  

This latest polling will likely further the notion that the US-China relationship is at a crossroads, with the leadership of both struggling to differentiate where competition ends and hostility begins. Even at the lowest point of US-China confrontation during the Cold War, diplomacy, including efforts involving non-government interlocutors, was never completely dismissed. With publics in both the United States and China voicing more animosity for each other, politicians may soon be looking to change tact or adopt more policies to further decoupling.