June 7, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Sweet and Sour: American Opinion on China

Sun Zhe, director of the Center for Sino-US relations at Qinghua University in Beijing, characterized US-China relations as “sweet and sour,” according to a USA Today article this week.  That’s a useful way to describe American public attitudes toward China as well.  Several recent surveys show that Americans recognize China’s growing influence and emphasize the importance of friendly engagement with China.  But many also recognize that over the longer term China’s rise could be a negative development for the competitiveness of the United States.

More Unfavorable than Favorable Views of China; China’s Influence Expected to Grow Several polls in 2012 and 2013 reported more unfavorable than favorable ratings of China among Americans. Just-released Pew results from March-April 2013 show that American views of China have declined steadily from 51 percent favorable in 2011 to 37 percent today. Some of the decline in favorable views of China might be a reaction to concerns about the impact of Chinese competition on the US economy - especially in the context of American economic difficulties - similar to American fear of Japanese economic strength during the 1990s. At the same time, the Chinese public has grown less favorable toward the United States (40% favorable in 2012 versus 58% in 2010) (Figure 1).

Pew’s previous April-May 2012 survey indicated that most Americans consider China a competitor (66%) rather than an enemy (15%) or a partner (16%). The same survey showed that two in three Americans rated US-China relations as at least somewhat good (65%). But just 5 percent rated bilateral relations as “very good,” and only 26 percent of Americans thought that the United States could trust China (68% lack trust).

The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that China is currently rated as second most influential in the world to the United States among the countries presented. But while China’s influence is seen to be rising in ten years, the US’s influence is expected to wane, narrowing the gap between the two (Figure 2). Nearly half viewed China as mostly a partner (48%) to the United States, an increase from 2004 (41%), but nowhere near the majorities that consider Japan (80%) and South Korea (65%) mostly partners.

Sharp Drop in Concern about a Rising China over Past Decade; Friendly Engagement Preferred

China’s emergence as a world power does not invoke a great sense of threat for Americans, but many are concerned about the impact of China’s economic growth on the American economy. The Chicago Council poll found only four in ten (40%) view China’s development as a world power as a critical threat, down significantly from a majority in 2002 (56%) (Figure 3). Most favored pursuing friendly cooperation and engagement (69%) over actively working to limit the growth of China’s power (28%).

The Spring 2012 Pew survey found a higher percentage of Americans viewing China’s emergence as a world power a “major” threat to the well-being of the United States (52%), but this question wording differs from the Chicago Council’s question which could have influenced the results. At the same time, a majority said it is “very important” for the US to build a strong relationship with China (55%).

China’s Economic Power: Both an Opportunity and a Challenge

About half of Americans believed Chinese economic growth will impact the United States in equally positive and negative ways (49%; 40% mostly negative; 9% mostly positive), according to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey. Half (52%) considered US debt to China as a critical threat.

Pew reported at least seven in ten Americans saying that the large amount of American debt held by China (78%) and the loss of US jobs to China (71%) are "very serious" problems for the United States; six in ten said the same about the US trade deficit with China (61%). Twice as many Americans said that China’s economic strength (59%) worried them more than its military strength (28%). And a majority said it is very important to be tough with China on trade and economic issues (56%).

Aside from economic issues, Pew found that about half of Americans also described cyber attacks from China (50%), China’s impact on the global environment (50%), China’s growing military power (49%) and China’s policies on human rights (48%) as “very serious” problems for the United States.

Public Opinion Stakes for the "Shirtsleeves Summit" In addition to economic concerns, the negative feelings expressed by Americans about China could be signs of  some growing pains in adapting to a new multipolar world. This helps explain why surveys find that older generations tend to be more negative in their attitudes toward China's rise than younger Americans. It's also very interesting that Pew’s May 2012 survey found that Americans are equally likely to say that the United States (40%) and China (41%) is currently the world economic leader - which could be a hint of this strain of  insecurity.

By contrast, Pew results show that the Chinese public is more likely to say the US (48%) is the world economic leader than name China (29%), which is more accurate, of course. At the same time, the Chinese public has grown less favorable toward the United States and has more disapproving of President Obama’s international policies (27% in 2012, down from 57% in 2009).

After the China bashing during the presidential debates last year (remember "currency manipulator?") and recent articles about cyber attacks, it's not too surprising that mutual impressions have soured a bit. Perhaps after a day of personal diplomacy at the ranch, both leaders and publics from both countries may feel a bit more positive.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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