Post #226: On China, the US Public Stands Apart

Why isn’t the American public as agitated about China as are the Trump administration, the mainstream media, and even many China specialists? In a recent article (www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/31/china-gap/), Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, raises this question, noting that the public seems strangely at odds with everyone else when it comes to the so-called China threat. Polls show that China ranks well below Russia, North Korea, and Iran when people are asked about their international concerns. Terrorism and protecting American jobs rank highest in priority (www.people-press.org/2018/11/29/conflicting-partisan-priorities-for-u-s-foreign-policy/1-1-2/). Yet Trump’s national security team identifies China, along with Russia, as the chief threats to the United States. The media seem to agree that the “China challenge” to US global leadership, militarily and not just economically, is a great and growing concern. A number of China watchers who normally urge cautious engagement with Beijing now see an aggressiveness that needs to be forcefully countered.
So why isn’t the US public convinced? I’d say it comes down to contact in various forms. First, and most obviously, Americans are far more likely to meet or observe people of Chinese descent—regardless of their status or country of origin, including Chinese-Americans—than Russians, Iranians, and North Koreans. And I think it is fair to say that those contacts are overwhelmingly favorable: Chinese are seen as being accomplished, hardworking, polite, and focused on family. Second, Americans use “made in China” products all the time; “China” is familiar to everyone mainly as a thriving commercial entity. When Americans worry about China, it is mainly (seven of ten polled) that Trump’s trade war will hurt their pocketbooks, not that China will act aggressively toward Japan or Taiwan (www.thechicagocouncil.org/press-release/poll-american-public-less-threatened-white-house-china).
Third, despite the administration’s official designation of China as a security issue, both the administration and the media devote much more attention to threats from Russia, North Korea, and Iran than they do to China. Yes, there’s the South China Sea dispute and some bad publicity about the Belt and Road Initiative, but these have far less saliency for Americans than does Russian election interference, North Korea’s nukes, or Iran’s meddling in the Middle East.
So the explanation of the “mystery” of the US public’s perception of China is in plain sight. That doesn’t mean, however, that the perception will remain positive. Historically, sudden changes in American perceptions of China have occurred fairly regularly. If the trade war continues unresolved, if another military incident involving US and Chinese forces occurs, if Xi Jinping’s suppression of human rights becomes even more blatant, or if China’s worldwide economic initiatives and cyber hacking become too aggressive, perceptions could turn very negative. But so long as China is perceived by the US public mainly in economic terms, with due appreciation of the benefits to the US and the world of China’s rise, it is unlikely to generate the same heat other countries bring out. (See the excellent analysis of Michael Swaine, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/01/16/relationship-under-extreme-duress-u.s.-china-relations-at-crossroads-pub-78159.)
And that’s a good thing, because the current wave of official and media hostility toward China is not conducive to dispute resolution and a search for common ground. Quite the opposite: these forces are pushing for a new Cold War, encouraging those in China who think likewise. As I have argued many times, China should be treated as a competitor, not a threat, with an understanding that diplomacy and deeper engagement, not force or pressure, is the best way to deal with areas of friction between our two countries.

祝我所有的中国朋友 猪年快乐: Happy Year of the Pig to my Chinese friends!

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6 Comments

    1. “contacts overwhelmingly favorable”? with chinese?? what color’s the sky where you are? chinese have rightfully earned the most horrendous reputation wherever they’ve turned up. hordes and droves of them overrunning every major tourist destination in greater asia and beyond — screaming, shouting, spitting, smoking — just the absolute expression of uncouthness and vulgarity as imagineable. they are to be avoided like the plague.

  1. Hi Mel:

    Excellent argument about Trumpies and the American public as regards China.

    Hope you can convert it into an op-ed somewhere.

    It just so happens that in the past few days I looked at the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” (29 Jan, 42p) prepared by Daniel Coats for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It has a list of 10 serious Global Threats (all increasing) that, I think, mentions China only in the Counterintelligence category (increasing opportunities for foreign actors to collect US info). It also has a list of 8 Regional Threats, including China and Russia expanding cooperation and increasing Chinese authoritarianism, but nothing as dire as the Trumpist view, which, like The Wall, is a major misdiagnosis stemming from the dangerously willful ignorance discussed on yesterday’s talk shows.

    Also, just yesterday, I read the “Global Risks Report 2019. 14th Edition” (Jan 2019, 107p) from the World Economic Forum, which, if my memory serves, does not even mention China.

    If you are to re-work your argument, this amply documented Global Risks report from Davos should be cited.

    Best, Mike

  2. I  agree with your points, Mel, and would add that Americans (and Chinese) have the good sense to clearly see all the obvious widespread corruption in government, especially in its collusion with big business. Awareness of our failure to check corruption has, over generations, undermined faith in government and made people inclined to be skeptical of warnings of the various bogeymen tendered by one administration after another.  Such issues as this and also those you list combine to present serious challenges for Trump’s administration: American people know it when China is being used as a foil. Didn’t de Tocqueville (not to mention Thomas Paine) comment on American common sense?

    Joe /Chengdu

  3. The Guardian (January 5) reported that China’s Central Bank once again reduced the minimum capital requirements normally imposed on commercial bank lending in order to jump-start lagging economic activity. The tariff wars are certainly responsible for some fraction of the slowdown and many analysts are on edge about the jolt that can be anticipated from the impending March round–if it comes to pass. For good and obvious reasons, the slowdown, itself, has got to preoccupy China (and its global trading partners). However, I’m even more concerned about the uncertainties and systemic disruptions that can easily arise from the financial and macroeconomic interventions China sees as the best cures available. When complex economies on the scale of the U.S. and China come under severe stress (think, tariff wars and housing bubbles), understanding which levers to pull and how to obtain appropriate responses turns out to be an extraordinarily challenging and precarious endeavor with global consequences. Think back to 2007-2009.
    My main point is that U.S.-China trade relations are not just about calculating the leverage needed to extract tangible benefits; they are also about second and third order effects such as the risk of making macroeconomic and structural adjustments and dealing with miscalculations of global proportion.
    :Larry

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