The U.S.-China relationship is arguably one of the most important—if not the most important—bilateral relationships in the world. The presidents of both countries have made statements to this effect, not to mention similar pronouncements by countless other officials and scholars from the two nations. But in spite of this professed interdependence, a recent spate of publications by U.S. think tanks on the bilateral relationship have all been negative in nature, calling for a toughening of U.S. policy towards China.
David Shambaugh has publicly pointed out this trend, labeling the current situation in U.S.-China relations—that of increased tension between the two countries—as the “new normal.” “Hardly a day passes when one does not open the newspaper to read of more—and serious—friction. This is the ‘new normal,’” Shambaugh declared, “and both sides had better get used to it—rather than naively professing a harmonious relationship that is not achievable.”
Generally well known and often-cited polling data show that the U.S. public is largely in agreement with U.S. experts’ pervasive negativity towards China. A periodic Gallup survey, for example, asks Americans which country they consider to be the United States’ “greatest enemy.” Since 2008, China has consistently placed in the top three and topped the list of responses last year, putting it ahead of Russia, Iran, and North Korea. In other words, a significant number of Americans consider China—the country with whom the United States has arguably the most important bilateral relationship—to be on par with and sometimes even more antagonistic than North Korea, a nation with whom the United States has no diplomatic or economic relations and that regularly threatens the U.S. with impending “final doom.”
The various sources of negativity in U.S. policymaking circles are relatively easy to pinpoint, with the South China Sea dispute recently serving as the most alarming disagreement between the two countries. Although some of the negativity emanating from those issues may have trickled down to affect the opinions of the American public, the matters that trouble political elites and avid China-watchers are by and large not the ones that average Americans would point to as the sources for their antagonistic perception of China. Despite the potential for dangerous conflict posed by the current situation in the South China Sea, most Americans may not know where the South China Sea is, much less be able to detail China’s reclamation activities there or its nine-dash-line claims. Likewise, the terms “ADIZ,” “Senkaku,” or “Diaoyu” probably do not resonate with most Americans. Many in this country likely have difficulty locating Taiwan on the map; even fewer are aware that China has missiles pointed at Taiwan.
The China-related ideas and concepts that leave many Americans these days with a bad taste are of a different nature. When one mentions China, people in the U.S. tend to think of government censorship, the lack of voting rights, pirated goods, air pollution, and food safety issues—all of which are frequently highlighted by Western media. Additionally, the media—including major U.S. news outlets such as The New York Times—regularly highlights socio-cultural factoids such as incidents of backwards and rude behavior by Chinese tourists and a dog meat festival in China, which no doubt also contributes to American’s negative impressions of the country. The list goes on, but the one characteristic shared by these examples are that they are largely domestic, not foreign policy, issues. They have very little direct effect on the average American, no matter how much they evoke negative perceptions. Americans may find it disturbing to think of people in China eating dog meat, but no one could claim that any of these conceptions of China are on the scale of the South China Sea dispute in terms of their ability to move either side towards a significantly more hostile relationship.
Even the topic of trade and the notion that “China steals our jobs”—which is the one in recent years that has routinely troubled both policy elites and the general public alike—is not on that scale. Outsourcing of jobs is not blamed exclusively on China—Indian call centers, for example, come to mind just as quickly or more apparently than Chinese factories. Furthermore, the extent that trade with China and the outsourcing of jobs to that country has truly hurt the U.S. economy more than it has helped is an assertion that in and of itself is up for debate. To whatever extent it actually holds true, it still directly affects only a portion of the population—those who have actually lost jobs because of it—while leaving the vast majority of Americans unaffected. Safety problems with products “made in China” is perhaps the one trade-related issue that does affect large swaths of Americans in some form or another. However, the relatively small number of fatalities caused by unsafe Chinese goods combined with the fact that most in this country do not have to buy Chinese-made products minimizes both the pervasiveness of direct impact and the severity on individual Americans.
One issue has emerged, however, as a concern to both policy elites and the general public alike and is becoming increasingly more prevalent and unavoidable: hacking. Average Americans may not know what China is up to in the South China Sea—despite policy elites ominously declaring that the problem “threatens to drive U.S.-China relations permanently in a far more adversarial, zero-sum direction and destabilize the region”—but they likely know that the Chinese are allegedly hacking into their private information. The key characteristic about hacking that sets it apart from other issues that previously shaped Americans’ perceptions of China is its ubiquitously undiscerning individual impact. People in general do not have the ability to “opt out” of a hacking attack the way one can choose to simply not buy products made in China. All hacking attacks, whether the perpetrator is Chinese, American, or of another origin, affect every person directly. Notices from various companies—whether it is Target, JP Morgan, eBay or others—informing people that their personal information may have been compromised seem to be an increasingly routine affair. Anyone who has an email account, smart phone, or any kind of online presence knows that his or her personal information is at risk.
The Chinese are, of course, not responsible for all of the breaches in cybersecurity that affect Americans, but with each new high-profile, significant report of a hacking attack by China—such as the recent Office of Personnel Management breach—negative perceptions of China in the minds of Americans become more and more engrained. If conceptions of China for generations of average Americans were defined by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the accumulation of alleged Chinese cyber attacks could become then the new defining issue for generations too young to remember Tiananmen. Images from Tiananmen Square were gripping because of the way television enabled the violence to play out in Americans’ homes, but hacking grabs Americans’ attention today because each attack violates individuals’ privacy.
Ten-year tourist visas, landmark climate change deals and a multitude of student exchange programs will not change many Americans’ views of China if they see the country as one that consistently hacks into their personal data. The U.S. public may not be in a position to influence foreign policy the way policy elites will, but it is hard to imagine the United States building a constructive relationship based on mutual trust with a country that ordinary Americans view as an “enemy” intruding into their most private information. Hacking could be the issue that brings average Americans’ opinions of China to a new low that has not been seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre. And this reality is part of the “new normal” in the U.S.-China relationship that both countries need to get used to and find a way to address—if they truly consider this bilateral relationship to be the most important in the world.
Euhwa Tran is the program associate for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative at the EastWest Institute. This piece was originally published on the EastWest Institute website.