Friend/Foe: The Contradictions in How Americans and Chinese See Each Other

The U.S.-China relationship is working well, so why are people in the two countries reporting such unfavorable views?

A boy yawns while awaiting Hilary Clinton's arrival in Beijing last May (Reuters).

Perception matters in international diplomacy, and even more so for the U.S.-China relationship. There are vast differences in political systems and institutions, social norms, historical and cultural legacies, and the ever-present information asymmetry. Mutual perceptions can get easily skewed, with real repercussions for policy. Though the U.S.-China relationship has proven surprisingly resilient, it is also colored by an unspoken unease, especially among elites in both countries. A recent paper from Ken Lieberthal of Brookings and Wang Jisi of Beijing University finds mutual distrust of long-term intentions, which they argue has serious and worsening implications. Some of that distrust is surely a result of perceptual dissonance, which can be reinforced and perpetuated over time through, for examples, domestic media, personal anecdotes, or bad experiences during visits.

Several polls have gauged American and Chinese attitudes recently, the latest from the Committee of 100, which has conducted such a survey since 1994. It's long and detailed, so here are a few key excerpts a few of the findings:

  • American policy toward china: The American public believes the U.S. accepts China's status as a rising power and wants a collaborative relationship by a widening 3 to 1 margin in contrast to 2 to 1 in 2007. American elites concur by an even wider margin. The Chinese public by a 2 to 1 margin believes the US is trying to prevent China from becoming a great power. Chinese elites, divided on this issue, are leaning more toward Chinese public perceptions.
  • U.S.-China relations trends: Almost half of the American public and elites believe there is no change in U.S.-China relations. The remaining half is divided almost evenly between improved and worse relations. Half of the Chinese public is unsure or believes there is no change, with the other half also evenly split between improving and getting worse. Although more Chinese elites tend to believe relations are improving, the proportion of Chinese elites who perceive worsening U.S.-China relations rose from 3% to 22%, compared to 2007.
  • Who to blame for worsening relations: Half of the American public who see worsening relations blames the U.S. government. Half of the American elites fault the Chinese government. Two out of three Chinese public attribute worsening relations to the U.S. government. Half of Chinese business leaders blame the U.S. government, while half of Chinese opinion leaders blame both governments.
One stat that struck me was the gap between Chinese elites' opinion of the U.S. and that of the Chinese public (see below). About 94 percent of Chinese opinion leaders hold favorable view of U.S., compared to just 60 percent among the general public.

My first thought was that perhaps stronger nationalism among the Chinese public could explain the discrepancy. One of the heads of the survey project, Frank Wu, who's also chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings Law School, agreed that nationalism is a good explanatory factor, also citing Chinese opinion leaders' higher degrees of exposure to the United States. Another co-chair of the survey, Jeremy Wu, a statistician at George Washington University, provided another thought:
The Chinese opinion leaders are more dominant in male representation than the general public (65% vs 51%), have more education (95% vs 7% college graduates or higher), are less religious (88% vs 74% with no religious beliefs), differ in occupations (selected university and research experts, journalists and editors, non-governmental organizations, and professionals vs all occupations), differ in location (3 major cities in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou vs almost entire China), have more Communist Party members (44% vs 5% party members), and have higher monthly income. Although nationalism may be a factor, the observed differences in opinion are more likely due to these differences in demographics.

The survey also found that 55 percent of Americans hold favorable impressions of China. This figure is much higher than in either the Gallup poll or the ABC News/WashPost poll conducted earlier in 2012. Those showed 42 and 37 percent favorable opinions of China, respectively. Particularly interesting is the time series data from the ABC poll, showing that American public opinion of China stood at a high of 80 percent in spring of 1989, just before the Tienanmen Square episode, plummeting to 39 percent a year later. Curiously, the latest 37 percent favorability rating is even lower than during Tiananmen.

So why the wide gap in American public impressions of China across the surveys? Methodological and sampling differences is one obvious explanation. Jeremy Wu offers another:

Due to the differences in random sampling, questions, timing, and other non-sampling factors, these four surveys may not be directly comparable. For example, the Gallup question appears to deviate from the C100, Pew, and ABC/WP questions. The C100, Pew, and ABC/WP questions are similar; Pew has a much higher (20%) unexplained response compared to 8% in C100. The ABC/Washington Post Poll has the following comment in its report:

"While challenges in the relationship are significant, there's a chance that a generational change could be in the offing: Young adults, age 18-29, hold far more positive views of China, rating it favorably rather than unfavorably by a 2-1 margin. Among their elders, that's reversed."

Since all 4 surveys cover cell phone users who tend to be younger than the general population, it is likely that some of the variation may be attributed to the weighting approach used. This is an area that none of the 4 surveys have provided a sufficiently clear and transparent explanation for objective analysis. If some clarity about the weighting methods can be provided and analyzed, we may have a much better understanding in comparing the survey results.

Finally, although the White House's China policy over the last several administrations has reflected a basic bipartisan consensus, the ABC survey results indicate that opinions of China seem ideologically partisan. Those identifying as Republicans appear to have a far less favorable opinion of China than do Democrats. And a much higher percentage of self-identified Republicans/conservatives hold a negative opinion of China. Ironically, this seems at odds with the oft-cited (though hardly proven) notion that the Chinese prefer Republican administrations.

What to make of all of this? A simple and preliminary conclusion is that Americans and Chinese, in general, view each other somewhere along the spectrum between friend and foe. Even as both seek greater collaboration, they also seem discomfited by one other. If we average the favorability ratings across the three surveys, then less than half of Americans have favorable impressions of China.

Is this attributable to the rise of China as a decisive new challenger to the United States? Or the sense that China is "stealing" American jobs and bending the rules of commerce? Or that China continues to spurn democracy and human rights after decades of economic liberalization? I don't have the answers, but it's important that they're found. If we want to sustain and improve one of the most important bilateral relationships in the 21st century, first we've got to understand one another.