‘Enemy’ Perception of China Has Risen in America

Americans not only see the country as an enemy and competitor, they also have an overall negative outlook on China. 

Bawi Cung at home with his three children before he and the two boys were stabbed in an anti-Asian attack last year at Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. (Bawi Cung via AP)

(CN) — Nearly 90% of Americans view China as more of an enemy than a partner, the Pew Research Center reported Thursday, shedding light on relations that have cooled considerably since a similar study in 2018.

Pew interviewed 2,596 Americans for the report early last month, almost a year exactly after the first lockdown to control the deadly spread of Covid-19 was announced in Wuhan, China.

Asked online to say the first thing that came to their mind when it came to China, only 7% mentioned Covid-19, and 1% discussed Wuhan. While 2% said they blamed China for waiting too long to tell the world about the virus, only 1% told Pew that China intentionally created the novel coronavirus in a lab.

Over half of Americans said that China and the U.S. both have done a bad job in handling Covid-19.

The study comes at a time of increased anti-Asian attacks in the United States and other parts of the world. Of 2,583 incidents reported to the San Francisco-based group Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and August 2020, over 23% involved scapegoating China as the source of the pandemic. 

Of course, casting blame on China for Covid-19 was a frequent ploy of the last presidential administration, noted Elizabeth Larus, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

“Americans’ negative view of China is partly fueled by the negative rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House, particularly on Chinese trade practices and Covid-19,” Larus said in an email Thursday. “Throughout 2020 and his presidential campaign, President Trump insisted on calling Covid-19 the ‘Chinese Flu’ or ‘Wuhan Flu.’”

But the stink around China’s handling of the virus continues to this day. For at least a month now, Beijing has faced a global row over the practice of subjecting both citizens and foreigners alike to anal swabs for Covid-19.

Chinese officials insist that science is on its side, rejecting objections from countries like Japan that the checks produce psychological distress.

For its part, South Korea’s foreign ministry has said its citizens are now being permitted to submit a stool sample rather than undergo the invasive procedure at the hands of Chinese personnel.

China last week denied reports that anal swabs were performed on U.S. diplomats.

Asking some of its questions in an open-ended format, Pew found that 12% of Americans used negative adjectives when talking about China compared with 4% who used positive adjectives.

“The category of positive descriptions encompassed all mentions of the Great Wall, Chinese food and pandas — all of which were mentioned, albeit infrequently,” Pew researchers Shannon Schumacher and Laura Silver said in a companion piece about an analysis of 2,010 responses.

Among negative adjectives, Americans deployed words like “greedy,” “scary” and “selfish.”

The Chinese-American author Kelly Yang says she and her children were verbally attacked last year in a California park, told by an elderly white couple to “go back where you came from.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A perception that human rights abuses are common in China was common among respondents. Up 7 points since last year, half of Americans ranked China’s human rights policy as very serious. Pew found that 70% of respondents said that the U.S. should promote human rights issues in China even if it harms economic relations with the U.S.

Of those who mentioned human rights, 3% mentioned a Muslim minority population called the Uighur, who are said to face a genocide while being detained in a remote region of China called Xinjiang. 

Larus, the professor at Mary Washington, linked America’s focus on this issue to the pandemic. 

“The U.S. public may not have paid as much attention to China’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang if not for Covid-19,” Larus told Courthouse News. “Covid-19 caught Americans’ attention, and now they are paying attention to the rest of the story.”

Larus described Americans’ view of China as being on a downhill trend.

“Americans’ positive view of China in the 1980s and 1990s, during an era of engagement between the U.S. and Chinese governments, was overly optimistic,” the professor said. “The scales are falling from American’s eyes after years of believing that China would actually become more like the U.S. in its politics, economy and values.”

Nearly half of the respondents Pew surveyed said it should be a top American foreign policy priority to limit China’s power and influence. Concern of a cyberattack from China is a big issue for Americans, with 65% saying it could be a big problem for the U.S.

The study also showed that 53% of Americans want to get tough on China with economic issues, while 43% want to build a strong economic relationship with the country.

Compared with 37% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans said America needs to get tough on economic relations.

There was some cross-party unison, however, when asked to put their sentiment about China on a “feeling thermometer.” Coming in below 50 on a 0–100 scale, 67% ranked their feelings as cold. Only 46% said the same in a 2018 Pew study. This year, more Republicans (79%) registered cold as compared with Democrats (61%).

Asked about China’s leader, 82% said they have no confidence at all in President Xi Jinping to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs.

President Joe Biden won more confidence from respondents, with over half saying they have confidence in him to handle things such as terrorism, climate change and military force. 

Pew found that 53% of respondents said they were confident in Biden’s ability to deal effectively with China. Predictably, Democrats have far more confidence in Biden than Republicans to handle the country, 83%–19%.

While 60% of respondents are confident in the new administration to deal with world affairs in general, they do not have as much faith in Biden to handle affairs with China.

One respondent wrote in the open-ended part of the survey that China is “holding at least 3 or 4 of Biden’s puppet strings.”

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