China-bashing is taking its toll.

Over the past year, Americans have been fed a fairly steady stream of news about the People’s Republic of China – and most of it hasn’t been particularly positive.

While Russia may get the more fevered news headlines because of the various political investigations happening in Washington, the current U.S. presidential administration hasn’t shied away from criticizing China on a range woes – trade policy in particular most recently, but also diverse other issues like alleged unfair technology transfer policies, plus the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea thereby bringing Chinese military power closer to other countries in the Pacific Rim.

The drumbeat of criticism could be expected to affect popular opinion about China – and that appears to be the case based on a just-published report from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report is based on a survey of 1,500 American adults age 18 and over, conducted during the spring of 2018.  It’s a survey that’s been conducted annually since 2012 using the same set of questions (and going back annually to 2005 for a smaller group of the questions).

The newest study shows that the opinions Americans have about China have become somewhat less positive over the past year, after having nudged higher in 2017.

The topline finding is this: today, ~38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, which is a drop of six percentage points from Pew’s 2017 finding of ~44%.  We are now flirting with the same favorability levels that Pew was finding during the 2013-2016 period [see the chart above].

Drilling down further, the most significant concerns pertain to China’s economic competition, not its military strength. In addition to trade and tariff concerns, another area of growing concern is about the threat of cyber-attacks from China.

There are also the perennial concerns about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, as well as job losses to China; this has been a leading issue in the Pew surveys dating back to 2012. But even though debt levels remain a top concern, its raw score has fallen pretty dramatically over the past six years.

On the other hand, a substantial and growing percentage of Americans expresses worries about the impact of China’s growth on the quality of the global environment.

Interestingly, the proportion of Americans who consider China’s military prowess to be a bigger threat compared to an economic threat has dropped by a statistically significant seven percentage points over the past year – from 36% to 29%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans age 18-29 are far less prone to have concerns over China’s purported saber-rattling – differing significantly from how senior-age respondents feel on this topic.

Taken as a group, eight issues presented by Pew Research in its survey revealed the following ranking of factors, based on whether respondents consider them to be “a serious problem for the United States”:

  • Large U.S. debt held by China: ~62% of respondents consider a “serious problem”
  • Cyber-attacks launched from China: ~57%
  • Loss of jobs to China: ~52%
  • China’s impact on the global environment: ~49%
  • Human rights issues:  ~49%
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China: ~46%
  • Chinese territorial disputes with neighboring countries: ~32%
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan: ~21%

Notice that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t near the top of the list … but Pew does find that it is rising as a concern.

If the current trajectory of tit-for-tat tariff impositions continues to occur, I suspect we’ll see the trade issue being viewed by the public as a more significant problem when Pew administers its next annual survey one year from now.

Furthermore, now that the United States has just concluded negotiations with Canada and Mexico on a “new NAFTA” agreement, coupled with recent trade agreements made with South Korea and the EU countries, it makes the administration’s target on China as “the last domino” just that much more significant.

More detailed findings from the Pew Research survey can be viewed here.

One thought on “China-bashing is taking its toll.

  1. As someone who lives in Southeast Asia, and who also builds and markets computer software for businesses, my attitudes toward China have definitely soured over the past few years.

    What are euphemistically termed China’s “technology transfer policies” have completely driven my company out of the Chinese market, which owing to rapid expansion of the Chinese economy we once regarded as a lucrative opportunity for growth.

    For example, accounting software cannot be legally sold in China without official “certification” which (surprise, surprise) is awarded only to Chinese firms. To get around these protectionist restrictions, some Western software makers have formed joint ventures with Chinese software houses in the past, only to discover that under Chinese law their joint venture partners are entitled to the source code, making it ridiculously easy for the partners to create competitive Chinese-branded copycat products. Finally, even after Chinese customers are enticed to buy from Western firms, they almost never pay their bills. As a result, software makers end up transferring their intellectual property the Chinese way — for free.

    China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia rightly see those Chinese military fortifications in the South China Sea as a direct threat, because they lie within waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Those claims are valid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China (but not the U.S.) has acceded. The Philippines’ UNCLOS claim was upheld by an arbitration tribunal in 2016, but China (and also Taiwan) have rejected the tribunal’s ruling. China’s assertiveness in the resource-rich South China Sea presents both an economic and a military threat, affecting especially the commercial fishing, oil and gas industries as well as the freedom to navigate one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

    Most recently, an increasing number of countries are spurning China’s One Belt-One Road (OBOR) overtures. Under its OBOR initiative, China contributes substantial sums of capital for and know-how to build critical infrastructure across Asia, Africa and even Europe — ocean ports, railways, pipelines, hydroelectric plants and the like — but on very onerous financial terms in the event (rather likely in Sri Lanka, as it turned out) that those projects fail to generate enough revenue to pay China back. Most recently, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled several Chinese-funded multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects two months ago. “It’s about pouring in too much money, which we cannot afford, cannot repay, and also because we don’t need these projects for Malaysia at this moment,” he said.

    Here in Thailand, where tourism is an important industrial sector, Chinese holidaymakers are flooding local tourist attractions and shopping venues. Though they appreciate the economic shot in the arm, the Thais are nonetheless horrified by Chinese manners, which are so poor that even the Chinese government is trying to educate its citizens before they go. The term “ugly American” ceased to be bandied about many years ago.

    It’s becoming increasingly clear that the conduct of the Chinese central government, and that of its citizens, is tarnishing China’s reputation in Asia and, according to Pew Research, in the U.S. as well. Now that Xi Jinping is President for life, I doubt China will volunteer much of anything to improve its international reputation in the years to come. Improvements will come only when other countries — like the U.S. and Malaysia — push back on trade policy and Chinese largesse.

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