Does the Public’s Opinion Toward China Matter?
Public opinion polls over the past several years reveal a significant shift in the American public’s attitudes toward China. The public increasingly believes that China, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in particular, pose a long-term threat across a broad spectrum of U.S. strategic interests from advances in technology to military capabilities and economic security. As recently as 2018, 51% of respondents in a Gallup Poll cited the threat from North Korea as the most significant, with China lagging far behind a distant third after Russia at only 11%. Although China moved up to the second position in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll at 21%, 32% of respondents that year ranked Russia as the greatest strategic danger.
However, since 2019 results across multiple polling organizations demonstrate a dynamic change in the American public’s view of China. A survey in 2020 conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has been documenting the public’s views on foreign affairs since 1974, found that 55% of Americans consider “the development of China as a world power” a critical threat. In July 2020, 73% of U.S. adults in a Pew survey had an unfavorable view of China, up from 26% just two years earlier. Results from a 2020 Center for Strategic and International Studies survey showed that 56% of respondents had an overall negative view of China.
Quantitative and qualitative research of polling data covering a broad array of foreign policy topics over the course of the 20th century demonstrates a complex relationship. Still, it often points to a direct correlation between the public’s attitudes and the subsequent implementation of American foreign policy decisions. Based on historical precedence and recent polling data indicating a shift in the American public’s perception of China, this essay argues that U.S. political and foreign policy decision-makers have the public support necessary to take decisive action and implement a concerted long-term strategy utilizing its tools within the diplomatic, information, military, and economic realms to counter China’s moves targeting the stability of existing regional and global structures.
Shifting Perceptions of China
The American public’s perceptions of China have varied dramatically since Mao and the CCP first came to power in 1949. Those perceptions arose in the context of the broader Cold War that witnessed direct U.S. involvement in Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan, as well as the Chinese Cultural Revolution and China’s emergence as a nuclear power in the 1960s. Despite official and open hostilities between the CCP and U.S. political leaders during this time, analysis of data on public polling beginning in the mid-1950s indicates a persistent preference among Americans for “slow, gradual increases in desires for rapprochement (Shapiro 1988).” By the 1970s, more Americans favored United Nations’ admission of China than opposed it, and support for the recognition of China rose a dramatic 31% between its lowest point during the Vietnam War in 1968 and 1977, when the Carter administration officially recognized China (Shapiro, 1988). Despite a few exceptions, further analysis of public polling data during this timeframe found a remarkably high correspondence between public preferences and U.S. policy toward China (Holsti, 1992). The two, in large part, were believed to be in harmony and provided the baseline public support needed by the Nixon administration to radically shift and implement their foreign policy objectives toward China (Shapiro, 1983; Holsti, 1992). The trend toward a more positive evaluation continued until 1989 when, following Tiananmen Square, results from a Gallop poll highlighted the number of Americans who viewed China in “very” or “somewhat” favorable terms declined from 72% to 34%. Significant parallels between public perception and policy decisions highlighted throughout the history of U.S.-Chinese relations sent a strong message to policymakers that there are direct, significant electoral consequences if they fail to pay close attention to the public’s opinions on China issues (Holsti, 2004).
In 1974, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was created at the behest of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to determine whether there was a renewed public desire to move toward U.S. isolationism following the Vietnam War. Since then, the council has conducted surveys to gauge public opinion on several key strategic issues associated with foreign policy and the U.S.’s place in the world.
One of the key findings that has remained relatively constant is Americans’ desire for the United States to stay engaged in world affairs. More specifically, over the past several years, polling data from the Chicago Council and several other public and private organizations, such as Gallup and the Brookings Institution, have highlighted a significant shift in the public’s attitudes toward China.
Results from the Chicago Council’s latest surveys from 2020 and 2021 are most telling. In 2020, Americans rated China an average of 32 degrees on a “feeling thermometer” between 0 to 100, where 0 represents a very negative feeling, and 100 represents a very favorable feeling. These results showed a noticeable decrease of 13 degrees from the last survey conducted in February 2018, which was the lowest rating given to China in the history of Chicago Council surveys dating back to 1978. In addition, 55% of Americans believed the development of China as a world power to be a critical threat to U.S. vital interests, a sharp increase from just 38% of those polled in January 2020. Additional data from the 2021 Chicago Council survey show the trend continuing and highlight a concern that the U.S. is falling behind its near-peer competitor in key areas believed to be critical to the U.S. maintaining its global influence. A plurality (40%) said China was economically stronger, up from 31% in 2019, and only 27% believed the U.S. maintained an economic advantage. For the first time in Council polling, fewer than half of Americans (46%) said the U.S. was stronger than China militarily, down from 58% in 2019. A majority of Americans (58%) in 2021 believed trade between the U.S. and China did more to weaken U.S. national security, up from 33% in 2019 during the height of the U.S.-China trade war. More Americans also expressed a willingness to use military force to defend allies and partners across a range of scenarios. Described as a “striking shift” by the Chicago Council, for the first time, a slight majority of Americans (52%) supported using U.S. troops if China were to invade Taiwan, up from 41% in 2020.
Understanding the Shifting Perceptions
The circumstances and reasons behind this significant shift in the public’s perceptions toward China over a relatively short period of time are many and complex, stemming from possible complicity in the COVID pandemic, regional expansionism, and the military development and occupation of islands in the South China Sea, human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, economic coercion and espionage, and the dismissal of accepted international laws and norms, just to name a few. How these issues are communicated to the public by foreign policy elites and their associated interest groups and how China is portrayed in the news media also play a significant role in shaping public perceptions. Past case studies that identify a strong relationship between the U.S. public’s perception and foreign policy outcomes, along with historical precedents demonstrating an alignment between contemporary public perception and U.S.-China policy, have provided the impetus and public backing for further stringent policy actions spanning the entire diplomatic, informational, economic, and, if necessary, military spectrums.
A new alignment countering China requires a concerted foreign policy campaign by the U.S. that is persistently and clearly communicated through open dialogue with the American public outlining the long-term threat China poses not only to the U.S. but also to our allies and partners in the existing international order. The Biden administration’s “Foreign Policy for the Middle-Class” plan is a step in that direction and seeks to align foreign policy objectives more closely with the desires of Americans outside the Beltway in Washington affected by these policy decisions. A majority of Americans polled in The Chicago Council survey in 2021 said that improving public education (73%) and strengthening democracy at home (70%) were crucial to maintaining U.S. global influence. Alongside domestic priorities, maintaining America’s economic power (66%) and military superiority (57%) were viewed by respondents as strategic elements critical to upholding the U.S. standing as a global leader against the direct challenge presented by a rising China.
The Military Factor
Although the capabilities gap between the U.S. and Chinese militaries continues to shrink, there is broad consensus among contemporary military analysts that for at least the next 5-10 years, the U.S., specifically its Navy, will maintain the edge primarily due to operational and tactical efficiencies in certain warfare areas, to include submarine and anti-submarine warfare, and U.S. experience and ability to conduct joint operations. Sustaining that military edge in the long term is imperative as both a deterrent and to demonstrate the U.S. has the capability to back its strategic ambitions to counter Chinese aggression. Moreover, U.S. political leadership is in the advantageous position to implement a set of clearly defined strategic objectives against our adversaries in the competition sphere and ensure we remain militarily prepared if ever faced with the decision to go to war in the Pacific theater.
Any conventional war with a near-peer competitor like the PRC, even if confined to a regional conflict in the South China Sea, would be unique in its speed, complexity, and, most likely, lethality against U.S. military forces. The number of American casualties in such a conflict would likely have an immediate and direct impact on the psyche of that critical leg in Clausewitz’s “triad,” the American public and its will. Richard Eichenberg conducted an ordinary least squares regression analysis to study all U.S. public opinion polls on instances where the U.S. threatened or used military force between 1981 to 2005 to look at relationships between the public’s will and its support for military intervention (Eichenberg, 2005). The study found the initial base level of public support for any military intervention is conditioned on the campaign’s strategic objective and, once implemented, the success and/or failure of that objective. Public concern over casualties was conditional and affected by both the strategic objective and the outcome of the conflict. Specifically, “data show a clear hierarchy of U.S. public support that differentiates the unpopularity of intervening in internal conflicts from the much higher levels of support for humanitarian interventions and the restraint of aggressive behavior of other sovereign states (Eichenberg, 2005).” U.S. involvement in situations of internal political change, or what could be defined as “essentially civil war situations,” as well as peacekeeping missions following an internal conflict, were not popular among respondents.
Eichenberg’s study revealed the use of military force under the pretext of internationally accepted rules and norms as defined by international institutions, for example, the U.N., and multilateral efforts alongside allies and partners, both provide an additional degree of legitimacy in the public eye, as opposed to the U.S. “going it alone.” Conveying principal policy objectives and the success or failure of a military operation are crucial factors determining the level of citizen support in its aftermath. The public’s sensitivity to the loss of human life must be understood within this context. If the United States accomplishes what it sets out to do, citizens generally respond that it is “worth it.” Mission failure impacts public support. Lastly, other considerations, such as multilateral support, also influence public opinion (Eichenberg, 2005).
The trend lines in recent polling make clear that the American public’s attitude toward China has evolved, and more and more Americans are concerned that China’s rise as a global power and strategic competitor threatens U.S. standing in the world to the detriment of peace and security. These concerns extend to the CCP’s stranglehold over its citizenry and China’s human rights record against ethnic minorities and individuals who speak out in opposition to the Party. Elected decision-makers have an opportunity to develop a long-term, comprehensive strategic plan with identifiable and measurable objectives that the American public understands and can support. These policy decisions should remain heavily focused on the diplomatic, information, and economic spheres of strategic engagement. But based on public opinion polls, the U.S. must ensure it is prepared to confront and defeat China on the battlefield if called to do so. As indicated in research conducted by Eichenberg and further supported by the Chicago Council poll showing 52% of Americans agree the U.S. should intervene militarily if China invades Taiwan, the public is more tolerant and accepting of military intervention to defend against aggressive actions by one sovereign against another. Public popular support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine against the predations of Russia provides further evidence.
Public perceptions of China, as reflected in polling data, must be considered and incorporated into current and future foreign policy decisions. There exists a symbiotic relationship between public opinion and foreign policy decision-makers within our liberal democracy. The American public has an appreciation for, and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of, the critical role U.S. foreign policy plays in maintaining stability within the global order and how closely our own domestic prosperity and security are linked to the international system. Just as importantly, this relationship further reinforces our foundational principle that political leaders remain beholden to the will of the governed.
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