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Politics

Americans’ attitudes toward China are getting much more negative, thanks to Trump

Tiananmen Gate in Beijing
A Chinese flag flies in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg )

After a year of tit-for-tat tariffs and bellicose rhetoric from President Trump, American public opinion of China has turned sharply negative, with many more people now seeing the Asian country as the greatest threat to the future of the United States.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center released Tuesday found that 60% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of China, up from 47% last year and the highest level since Pew began asking the question in 2005. The sharp increase was evident among Republicans and Democrats alike. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed a similar decline in American sentiments toward China.

The public’s hardened attitudes on China reflect increased friction between the two nations, particularly over trade, and could make China — and Trump’s approach to it — an issue in the 2020 election campaign. Many have questioned his tactics in levying tariffs off and on over the last year.

During his run for the president in 2016, Trump frequently attacked China on trade, a message that resonated with blue-collar workers and may have broader appeal in 2020.

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“He can capitalize on that,” said Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew and an author of the survey report. Strikingly, the survey found that just as many Americans today regard China as the greatest threat to the U.S. as those who rank Russia as its top rival.

Yet even as many more Americans now see China in a bad light –- and Beijing’s handling of the protests in Hong Kong certainly isn’t helping –- that doesn’t mean there’s widening support for Trump’s strategy or tactics on trade.

An earlier Pew survey showed that more Americans viewed increased tariffs as bad for the United States than good.

And Trump’s move earlier this month to heap more tariffs on China could backfire. Ending a short-lived cease-fire, he announced a new 10% punitive tax on $300 billion of Chinese goods to take effect Sept 1. That would be in addition to 25% duties already imposed on $250 billion of imports from China, and will be felt more directly by American consumers since the new tariffs would hit many more household products like clothes, cellphones and computers.

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But Tuesday morning, Trump’s top trade official abruptly announced that many of the threatened tariffs would be delayed until Dec. 15, an acknowledgment of the pain they might cause to American shoppers.

Trump also officially labeled China a “currency manipulator” last week after Beijing allowed its yuan to fall in value, crossing seven yuan to the dollar for the first time since 2008. Analysts don’t think China intervened with its currency to gain an unfair edge in trade, but the threat of currency wars — and Beijing’s retaliatory move to suspend U.S. farm purchases after Trump’s new tariffs — has hammered financial markets and intensified fears of a global economic slowdown.

U.S. public opinion of China has vacillated over the years, but only once in the last 14 years of Pew’s polls on the subject, in 2008 , did more Americans have a positive view of China than a negative one.

In both 2017 and 2018, 47% of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of China, with 44% and 38%, respectively, reporting favorable opinions.

But when the latest poll was conducted, in May and June of this year, the unfavorable rating jumped to 60%, with 26% positive. (The remainder of 1,503 surveyed said they didn’t know or refused to answer.)

As before, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to be negative on China. But the magnitude of the decline was similar and coincides with Trump’s escalation of his trade fight with China over the last year, which has seen the president and administration officials complaining frequently about China’s large trade surplus, Chinese theft of intellectual property and other unfair economic practices.

China’s public image also has been hurt by reports of Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, harsh treatment of dissidents and minorities at home, and U.S. accusations that Chinese telecom giant Huawei poses a serious threat to American national security.

Also, there’s bipartisan backing in Congress and elsewhere for taking tougher action against Beijing as the limits of a more friendly engagement policy toward the Chinese government have become evident.

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“What you see is Trump and most of the Democratic candidates echoing that broad support,” said Patrick Egan, a public opinion and American politics expert at New York University. If public attitudes toward China have soured, he said, it’s in part because of what’s called “one-sided information flows.”

“Trump has been very critical of China and you really haven’t heard any Democratic voices countering him on that,” Egan said. “They’ve countered him on what he’s doing and how he’s going about it, but they actually haven’t disagreed with the fundamental claim he’s making: that China has been an unfair player in the global economic space.”

Egan and other analysts predict Trump will make China trade a top issue in the 2020 campaign, using it against any Democrat in particular who may appear to be wavering about hitting Beijing hard. But they say it’s unclear whether Trump will be able to seize the public’s growing concerns about China to his advantage.

Some Democratic candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have proposed even more restrictive trade policies, and many others have leveled criticisms against Trump that he is addressing the China problem in a haphazard way that endangers the U.S. economy and constituencies who have come to rely on Chinese imports, particularly farmers in the Midwest.

“It’ll be over what’s an effective strategy,” said William Reinsch, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Their main thing is his failure to build a coalition. It’s always better to deal with China with a lot people than just yourself.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said trade and trade agreements were significant factors for voters who switched from backing President Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, especially in the upper Midwest.

“He has certainly elevated the importance of the issue,” Ayres said of China. “Time will tell whether Americans support his proposed solutions.”


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