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Elite-Public Gap on China May be Decreasing

Running Numbers by Karl Friedhoff
Nuno Alberto
People walk through the rain on a a busy street in China.

New data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests the difference in opinion between the public and the White House is beginning to narrow on the perceived threat of China.

Perceived threat of China 

I’ve written in this space previously about the elite-public gap on the perceived threat of China. In the past that gap was quite robust. The foreign policy elite widely view China as a threat and/or competitor, as does the Trump White House, but those views did not filter down to the wider public. Dan Drezner covered this most thoroughly in a piece for the Washington Post. New data from the Chicago Council suggests this gap is beginning to narrow. 

In surveys conducted in 2006, 2012, 2014, and 2018 respondents were nearly evenly split in viewing the United States and China as either mostly partners or mostly rivals. The overall consistency from 2006 to 2018 is remarkable in itself. But in a Chicago Council survey conducted in early 2019, those numbers may be beginning to shift. Now, 63 percent identify the countries as mostly rivals versus 32 percent as mostly partners.

It is too early to say what is driving this shift, if it will continue, or how long it will endure. However, the timing certainly suggests that the sustained negative portrayals of China by the Trump administration and the media are beginning to have an effect. This may be an unwelcome development for US-China relations in the future. But for those studying the influence of elite messaging and the influence on the general public this will be an interesting data point to watch.