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International Relations Scholars and the Public on US-China Policy

Running Numbers by Craig Kafura
Ron Przysucha
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meet with CCP Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, 2021

A comparison of two recent polls finds some similarities—and some significant differences—in how international relations scholars and the American public want to approach China.

The US-China relationship has taken a sharp turn towards confrontation in recent years, and President Biden’s administration has thus far continued many of his predecessor’s China policies. Part and parcel of the course correction and subsequent policy continuity: the widespread backlash the PRC has faced in numerous countries.

That backlash hasn’t just occurred among government officials. A comparison of a recent William and Mary poll of international relations (IR) scholars and the 2020 Chicago Council Survey of the American public find that large majorities of scholars and the public agree on a number of US policies aimed at the PRC. However, there are also several areas of significant difference between scholars and the public. This was the 15th TRIP (Teaching, Research & International Policy) project snap poll and it was conducted April 28-May 3, 2021 among a sample of 812 international relations scholars employed at US colleges or universities who teach or conduct research on issues that cross international borders. The survey replicated an item from the 2020 Chicago Council Survey (the 20th in the Council’s long line of surveys dating back to 1974), conducted July 2-19, 2020 among a national public sample.

Shared Support for Sanctions, Tech Limits—and Arms Control

IR scholars and the US public agree on quite a few things when it comes to US policies towards China. Large majorities in both groups (86% each) support the US placing sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses. And both scholars and the public support restrictions on US-China business relations in high-tech and telecommunications. Majorities of scholars (81%) and the public (74%) favor banning US companies from selling sensitive high-tech products to China. Similarly, large majorities among experts (75%) and the public (69%) also favor prohibiting Chinese technology companies from building communications networks in the US. That doesn’t mean scholars and the public are united only on confrontational approaches to China. Three in four Americans (75%) —and nearly all scholars (95%)—also support negotiating arms control agreements between the US and China.

"A bar graph showing public opinion of US policy towards China"

IR Scholars Oppose Tariff Hikes and Restrictions on Chinese Students or Research

There are also several policies that receive a narrow majority to middling backing from the American public but are broadly opposed by scholars. A narrow majority of Americans (55%), but only two in ten scholars (22%), favor increasing tariffs on Chinese imports. And while half of Americans (50%) favor restrictions on the exchange of scientific research between the US and China, only a quarter of scholars say the same (27%). Lastly, few scholars (11%) and a minority of Americans overall (45%) support a policy of limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the United States.

In each of these areas, scholars may be drawing on different knowledge—or different interests—than the broader American public. While tariffs are an oft-used tool of US foreign policy, and often popular with a public that has consistently prioritized protecting Americans' jobs as a goal of US foreign policy, the scholarly literature on tariffs is far more critical.

In the case of research restrictions or limits on students, both policies would hurt academic researchers’ own interests. Jokes about journal paywalls notwithstanding, large-scale restrictions on the exchange of research run counter to the work of scholars—and would likely increase the problems researchers already face in studying the PRC. And limits on Chinese students in the United States, while a minority position among the public, are deeply unpopular among the academic community. For scholars, these students are not abstractions: they are their students, and in the case of graduate students, potentially their future colleagues. There’s also the financials to consider. In the last pre-pandemic year, nearly 370,000 Chinese nationals were students at American universities, a number that is nearly triple what it was a decade ago. Those students pumped billions into the US economy in tuition fees and living expenses, and losing them would be a serious blow to many universities that have offset state budget cuts with increased international enrollments.

In US-China Rivalry, Whose Interests Reign Supreme?

A more competitive, less cooperative relationship between the US and China will have significant impacts on a range of areas of US society. The results of the latest TRIP poll of IR scholars should remind us that while there may be some broad areas of agreement, when the rubber hits the road different groups in the United States will have distinctly different preferences and interests. They may also experience distinctly different consequences, should the deep engagement and interconnections between the US and China continue to come apart.

About the Author
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Council expert Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
Council expert Craig Kafura