China Power

US Public Views on China

Does the US public have a more nuanced view of China than it’s often given credit for?

In the last of the series of guest posts by China analysts while I’ve been away, I heard from Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Next American Century: How the US Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise, about US public attitudes toward China.


Every year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducts a survey of US opinion on foreign affairs. This year, they asked quite a few questions about China, with the subsequent report summarizing US public attitudes on China as the following:

• More than two-thirds think that the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively work to limit the growth of China’s power.

• While Americans don’t see the rise of China as highly threatening at this point, they are keeping a watchful eye on it, showing some concern about economic relations and hedging against a potential future military threat.

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• Three-quarters of Americans believe it’s likely that someday China’s economy will grow to be as large as the U.S. economy.

• Half of Americans think that if China’s economy were to grow as large as the US economy, this would be equally positive and negative.

• Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe China practices unfair trade.

• Two-thirds now understand that China loans more money to the United States than the United States loans to China, up dramatically over the past two surveys.

• Only a minority (but a substantial one) views the development of China as a world power as a ‘critical’ threat.

• A strong majority of Americans prefer to undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively work to limit the growth of China’s power. Yet a majority prefers to hedge against a possible future threat from China by building up strong relations with traditional allies like South Korea and Japan even if this might diminish relations with China.


For a public that’s sometimes accused of not being able to find China on a map, this is a pretty subtle and reasonable collection of beliefs. 

Of course, the US-China relationship is doomed to be difficult—the relationship of a rising power and a dominant power is never easy and is often violent. Add to that an enduring trust gap between the two countries because of their divergent domestic political systems and values, and the potential for friction becomes clear.

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What these results show, however, is that the American people (not to say all of their leaders) understand the relative shift in power that’s occurring, and accept it. They want to cooperate with China and appreciate its importance on the world stage, while maintaining strong relationships with regional allies. 

Indeed, it’s only really the economic relationship that really troubles Americans. Even then, it’s remarkable that half of Americans surveyed think that the possibility of China’s economy growing to the size of the United States’ is a neutral fact, neither positive nor negative (the other half, more predictably, think it would be negative).

Such results imply an appreciation by a large number of Americans, even amidst a terrible recession, that the US economic relationship with China is not a zero-sum game; China's gain doesn’t foreordain the United States’ loss.

And, yet, most Americans also believe that China isn’t playing fair in our trade relationship (indeed, by most accounts it isn’t). But the downsides of the relationship are probably also magnified through domestic politics in both countries where the temptation to blame the other country for one’s economic woes is significant. 

So the question is—can Washington and Beijing forge an economic relationship that not only is fair to both sides, but also seems fair to large swaths of the political spectrum on both sides?  That’s no easy feat, but the players are at least pointing in the right direction—China at building its middle class and stimulating domestic consumption and the United States focused on fundamentals like healthcare and education, which will help its own struggling middle class, and on reducing the deficit in the medium term. 

All this said, the mood in the United States today doesn’t encourage optimism about much. But I remain very hopeful about the United States’ long-term prospects and its sustaining global leadership, especially with evidence like this about the prudent beliefs of average Americans on China.