How do Americans really perceive China?
It is widely believed that most Americans not only distrust but also despise China. Considering the country’s violent political history, unprecedented economic rise, and growing military capabilities, China has become America’s strongest market competitor and arguably the most challenging global threat to the United States.
Nevertheless, a full consideration of American opinion proves the opposite to be true. Carefully analyzing all available polls and surveys, Benjamin I. Page and Tao Xie find most Americans favor peaceful engagement with China. The public view has been surprisingly coherent and consistent, changing only in response to major events and new information.
While a majority of Americans are not happy that China’s economy is projected to become as large as that of the United States, they are prepared to live with it. “Unfair” Chinese trade practices and their impact on American jobs and wages are a concern, along with the quality and safety of Chinese-made goods. However, Americans favor free trade with China, provided it is tempered with environmental and workplace protections. They also believe that the United States should “balance” Chinese power through alliances with neighboring countries, such as Japan. Yet they oppose military action to defend Taiwan. Page and Xie examine these opinions in relation to facts about China and in light of current U.S. debates on diplomacy and policy.
When it comes to the study of public opinion and US-China policy, it is almost impossible to know where to start, or what to believe. With near-endless surveys and polls, conducted by a broad range of institutions, businesses, governmental organisations, NGOs and media companies, how can policymakers make public-approved China policy? While some – particularly realists like Leslie Gelb (2009), Hans Morgenthau (1973), George Kennan (1951) and Walter Lippman (1923) – might question the value of making policy based on public preferences (I fall into this camp, but with caveats), Page and Xie have decided to write a survey of the surveys and polls. Their aim was to draw together from all the data and research conducted thus far (much of it by the authors themselves, over the course of their careers) to discover what it is the American public believes about China, and what sorts of policies they want from their government.
Considering the rise in anti-China (or, at least, critical of China) advertising and campaigning during the 2010 midterms, one could be forgiven for the belief that Americans are predominantly anti-China. However, despite the apparent value of such campaigning, Page and Xie have discovered a much more varied reality. A long-standing tradition in the study of foreign policy and international relations holds that public opinion is either “irrelevant or dangerous”, because the public in general is flighty and fickle, easily distracted by patriotic baubles and the whims of skilled politicians. Indeed, the Founding Fathers worried a good deal about this (particularly Madison and Hamilton, who both wrote in the Federalist Papers - #63 and #71, respectively – about the potentially deleterious effect of public opinion on policy). Page and Xie, in writing this book, come to the surprising conclusion that, “if policy makers acted exactly in accord with the expressed wishes of the U.S. citizenry, U.S.-China relations would probably improve.”
The American people, it turns out, have far more nuanced views and opinions about China, its economy and level of ‘threat’ to the United States. Andrew Nathan, who wrote the introduction to the book, says
“the public in the aggregate is more moderate on China relations than one would gather from the tenor of policy debates. They are less alarmed by the so-called China threat in the economic realm, less worried about a Chinese military or security threat, less willing to confront China in general, less willing to go to war over Taiwan in particular, less committed to making China a democracy, and less willing to complicate relations over human rights issues than the media and politicians who often speak for them.”
When it comes to making China policy, Nathan writes, “it is hard to know who is in charge”, and he wonders if policy is “essentially strategy-free, the jerry-built result of compromises and tradeoffs among competing interest groups, bureaucracies, members of Congress, religious movements, human rights organisations, and business lobbies”? This is, in my view, an essential question to ask about US-China relations. True, it is extremely difficult to ever ‘prove’ who or what influences policy-making (I’ve spent four years working on a PhD thesis on this very subject), but Page and Xie do not, in my opinion, offer much in the way of any answer as to who or what influences public opinion and, extrapolating from that, policy. In Living With The Dragon, the authors do an exemplary job of presenting empirical survey data of American public opinion of China, but unfortunately – as I’ll come back to later in the review – do not offer much analytical depth beyond looking at the data itself.
The book is separated into three issue-chapters – economics, security, human rights – and I’ll split my review into similar sections.
Before delving into the survey data they have collected, the authors offer a very good, accessible summary of China’s economic development since the 1949 Communist takeover. I will not repeat any of this, as it is widely available in other books and through other sources. From 1949-1977, US experts and media portrayed China as backward, and negative press also tapped into Cold War anti-Communism. Only after Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms did Americans begin to believe that the Chinese economy might take off and hold potential benefits for American businesses. What is clear from the authors’ research is that, when it comes to China,
“confusion has given way to a reasonably clear understanding of what is going on. Americans have become much more aware of China’s economic rise and its implications for the United States.”
The authors discover some interesting things about public opinion: There is definite concern for the size of China’s economy – perhaps because of the simple calculation that a bigger economy means a richer country, which in turn could translate into a bigger, better equipped military. Americans are concerned over the amount of US debt held by the Chinese (a third of all American public debt), and the resultant lop-sided nature of US-China trade. The US public is not comfortable with foreign ownership of certain American assets (as witnessed by the rejection of CNOOC’s bid to buy Unocal in 2005 – which 73% of respondents opposed), and are particularly against foreign governmental ownership of American national assets. At the same time, and understandably, the American public is very positive about access to cheaper goods, which China offers – although, this comes with a considerable concern and scepticism over the quality of Chinese-made goods. Protection of US jobs remains a priority, of course, which gives rise to certain protectionist impulses. China is also frequently described as conducting “unfair” trade practices (just as Japan was in the 1980s).
Despite the concerns mentioned above,
“most of the economic policy responses favoured by majorities of Americans are moderate, not drastic. Americans’ overall reaction to the rise of China is not to favour actively working to limit that rise, but rather to engage in friendly and cooperative relations with China.”
The authors provide some interesting data about the demographic spread of opinion, and it is surprising that it doesn’t apparently matter what income, sex, age, or race a respondent is – opinions are apparently shared across these categories in roughly equal measures. Page and Xie believe that the future of US-China economic relations will come down to perceptions of quality, the downward pressure of US jobs from competitive China, and the US’s response to these factors.
Americans’ perceptions of China’s economic rise are, therefore, “mostly benign” and they “seem prepared to live peacefully and cooperatively, if not entirely contentedly, with the economic dragon.”
“Far from being oblivious, most Americans are well aware of China’s increasing power and influence in the world. They are not complacent; many feel uneasy about potential military rivalry from China, and many favour certain efforts to balance China’s power. But there are few signs of alarmism, belligerence, or erratic fluctuations in opinion.”
For the main, it seems, the American public is against military confrontation (particularly with regards to Taiwan) or overt balancing to influence China’s actions (alliances and multilateralism is seen as the best way to contain or balance China’s rise). The public priority appears to be stable, cooperative, and profitable relations.
“part of Americans’ concern about China’s power is based on economics, but most of it involves national security.”
On the international stage, China is seen as rising in influence and power, maybe to one day surpass the US (with varying dates for this, ranging from 10-40 years). China is not, however, considered a good international leader – perhaps the necessity of it becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ has taken root in the American psyche. Equally, despite its obvious rise in influence, Americans do not perceive this rise as considerable to threaten the attractiveness of American soft power influence (this flies in the face of the “Beijing Consensus” espoused by Stefan Halper and others).
In 2008, 40% said China’s rise posed a “critical threat” to US vital interests, and “hardly any American expressed no concern at all.” That being said, China is still ranked rather low on the list of great American concerns – lower than energy disruptions, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Islamic extremism/fundamentalism, global warming, and even fear of vast waves of immigrants.
As with economics, “the sentiment in favour of friendly cooperation and engagement is shared across nearly all social, demographic, and even political groups in the United States.” In 2008, the authors tell us, clear majorities of Americans, across the public spectrum, said the US “should deal with the rise of China’s power by cooperation and engagement rather than actively working to limit that rise.”
“As best we can judge, American public opinion does not throw up any serious obstacles against sensible and flexible U.S. policies for dealing with the rise of China as a world power.”
Human rights issues are very close to Americans’ hearts, and very important in the realm of foreign policy. After a very good summary of China’s political system and (moderate) evolution since 1949, and also China’s human rights record (which reads like a long litany of abuses), what follows is the section in which we seem more concrete, negative impressions of China. The US public “support critical reports, diplomatic pressures, and activities by international human rights groups” when it comes to confronting China’s poor record on human rights. And yet, as in the security and economic realms, the public remains measured:
“Barring unusual circumstances... these matters are not highly salient to most Americans. Most oppose the sorts of penalties or intrusive U.S. actions that could jeopardize economic or diplomatic relations with China.”
This was an interesting discovery, as it flies in the face of the considerable amount of literature that argues Washington is not giving the US people the China policy it wants. Both Bill Clinton and George W Bush (eventually) favoured economic relations over pursuing harsh human rights penalties or sanctions, recognising the overall benefit in a broad range of internationally important issues for which China could be an important, perhaps even essential, ally.
There is lingering concern over China’s human rights record, of course, and this is largely the result of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which the authors rightly identify as a game-changing event – China’s reputation has never recovered from the media coverage of this event, and each time the Chinese government reacts harshly, negatively, or melodramatically to a US initiative or policy (or, more recently, a Nobel Prize), Americans’ impression of China is reduced or further damaged.
When it comes to the democratisation of China, and America’s place in helping along the political evolution of the country, Americans are less interested than human rights.
“Americans generally feel warm and favourable toward other advanced industrial democracies with similar political and legal institutions, but feel suspicious or cool toward authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.”
China’s political system, however, like it’s potential as a security threat, is low on the list of things people first think of when asked about China. They expect China to eventually democratise, but – assuming no critical event takes place to push opinion – they are generally uninterested in the US doing anything to force the process.
“Americans’ opinions about democracy in China are less salient and less strongly held than one might expect, and there is little sentiment for doing much about it.”
Human rights will likely be a “continuing irritant” for future US-China relations. Americans just care far more about this than democratisation. The authors don’t gloss over the darker side of China’s record, but they should be thanked for presenting the details in dispassionate language, marking a considerable difference between their study and the norm of US-China human rights disputes. Since trade normalisation in 2000/1, public opinion about what to do about China’s human rights record has become “murkier” and far less combative. With economic opportunity comes measured responses, apparently.
“most Americans applaud the issuance of critical reports about China by human rights organisations; they approve of stern warnings to China by U.S. officials; they like the idea of applying diplomatic pressure. But most Americans oppose concrete punitive actions. This may be disappointing to some human rights activists, but it does indicate that... the American public is unlikely to demand U.S. policies that would seriously damage relations with China.”
The authors offer an interesting section about the trends in opinion and international events, but they do not delve nearly deep enough (if at all) into identifying why opinion fluctuates as much or as little as it does surrounding these events. The data’s not surprising, but it is nice to know it is available, and (now) all in one place.
Overall, the authors conclude, US public opinion on China is consistent with a “rational public” perspective.
“The policies embraced by majorities of Americans tend to form a coherent, rather reasonable, whole. Advocates of prudent U.S. policies toward China have little to fear from the American public.”
The concluding chapter is rather good, but considering the shortness of the book, it is highly repetitive (something the book suffers from as a whole). In some ways, reading just this chapter would be perfect if you just want to know what the authors have discovered, in brief.
“Listening to television pundits and Washington politicians, one could easily get the mistaken impression that ordinary Americans’ views of China are deeply confused, erratic, or belligerent. We do not know whether such caricatures result from simple misinformation, or wilful ignorance, or perhaps in some cases from deliberate efforts to provide cover for the speakers’ own extreme views by pretending that they are shared by Americans generally.”
This is certainly something Living With The Dragon forces the reader to consider. If the data and conclusions presented by Page and Xie are accurate, why does China remain such a popular target in American election cycles? Perhaps it is only the vocal minority who do believe all the negative press who vote in midterms, but when it comes to presidential elections with much higher turn-out, China-bashing remains popular (if not highly important or indicative of voting).
Page and Xie argue that policy should follow US public opinion. This, in fact, is what it largely does – politicians in Washington are far more likely to favour economic opportunities than initiatives that might hurt or offend China. True, rhetorically many politicians remain belligerent, but this rarely translates across to concrete policy. This is especially true in the Executive, which often finds itself taking part in the job of calming Congress down (George H.W. Bush certainly did, in the wake of Tiananmen; and Clinton did when he officially jettisoned human rights from his economic agenda).
While policy does trend with public opinion, this does not mean it always should. Richard Haass once criticised Clinton, in a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, for following the polls too much, giving the people the policy they wanted instead of the one they needed, which is the responsibility of a better informed and (hopefully) more rational Executive.
Ultimately, the authors’ evidence suggests that the American public would welcome a world in which the US and China acted “not as adversaries but as leading citizens in a peaceful world order.” Put another way:
“Most Americans are prepared to live peacefully and cooperatively with the Chinese dragon.”
Without doubt, the book is valuable to anyone studying US-China relations, and I believe it would also be of considerable interest to those involved in policy-making – if only as a source of empirical survey data. There is not the level of analysis I would have liked from these authors (I have read other work by Page, and also Xie’s previous book), but Living With The Dragon was not without merit. Empirically, this book is a great resource, but it would have been beneficial to know why Americans think the way they do. Even though the authors have sections purported to ask why or what influences American public opinion on China, they did not come close to answering the question – they merely tracked opinion to global events, ignoring instances when opinion deviated from the norm. Perhaps another book on these questions would be beneficial, difficult as it is to ‘prove’ with certainty who or what influences policy and public opinion.
Recommended, this is a good, short book filled with interesting information on the American public’s views of China and how the rising dragon does and could affect the US in the future.
Other good books on US-China Relations: Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus (2009); James Mann, About Face (2000) & The China Fantasy (2007); David Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Zachary Karabell, Superfusion (2009); Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall (2000)