U.S. Views of China Plunge During Corona Crisis

U.S. Views of China Plunge During Corona Crisis
(Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)
U.S. Views of China Plunge During Corona Crisis
(Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)
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A new poll by the Pew Research Center provides the clearest snapshot yet of the collapse in American views of China thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken March 3-29, the big takeaway from the survey of 1,000 adults is that 66% now have a negative view of China, compared with 26% favorable. That is a 20% jump in unfavorable ratings since 2017 and a 6% rise since last year. These are the worst numbers ever recorded for China, despite Beijing's global public relations campaign to portray its coronavirus response in a positive light.

The damage to China's image is deep and widespread. Nearly 90% of Americans polled believe that China’s power and influence are a threat, with fully 62% saying it is a “major” threat. As for the most visible Chinese leader, 71% of respondents have “no confidence” in Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Interestingly, those with a college degree and above were slightly more negative about China than those without a college degree, but at 68% percent to 64%, both were healthy majorities. Even the youngest demographic, aged 18-29, held a 53% unfavorable view, compared to 71% of those aged 50 and above. 

Conversely, 91% believe it is better for the world if America is the world’s leading power, compared to just 4% who prefer China. Similarly, 83% believe the U.S. is the world’s leading military power, versus 6% who think it is China.

As for economics, 59% say the U.S. is the world’s leading economic power, versus 30% arguing for China. Over the past three years of the Trump administration, the number of Americans worried about the trade deficit has held largely steady at 49%, and a similar 52% have worried about job loss to China during the same years. 

There is more to dive into from the poll, but the conclusion seems clear: the CCP's pervasive global coronavirus propaganda campaign appears to have failed, at least among ordinary Americans. March, the month the poll was conducted, was probably the high point of Beijing’s attempts to convince the world that it had acted swiftly, openly, and responsibly to eradicate the coronavirus and warn the world. In the month since, it has become widely accepted that the CCP covered up the nature and extent of the epidemic, silenced whistleblowers, and misled the international community.

Furthermore, Beijing’s attempts to win praise for "donating" medical supplies have faltered due to the millions of pieces of defective and substandard equipment it sold and shipped around the world. Now, from Missouri to India, local and national polities are considering how to sue China and are demanding reparations. 

The coronacrisis is not merely an economic, social, and epidemiological turning point for the world. As the Pew poll indicates, it is also a turning point for the world’s relations with China. Despite its best efforts, Beijing has failed to convince Americans and much of the world of its competence and goodwill. Instead, the CCP party-state is seen as an untrustworthy partner, and even more severely, as a threat, not merely in an abstract geopolitical way, but one directly affecting the health and well-being of families and communities. The fallout for China and Xi Jinping personally will be severe and long-lasting.

In response to the views of ordinary Americans, the Trump administration is unlikely to soften its position toward Beijing. Nor will other governments in countries ravaged by the coronavirus take a more lenient line toward the Chinese government as it becomes clearer just how much of the catastrophe could have been avoided if Beijing had warned the world that the virus could be transmitted between humans, or if it had prevented millions of Chinese from traveling abroad during the Lunar New Year, instead of only stopping domestic travel from Wuhan. The very decoupling from the global economy that the CCP has worried about will accelerate due to the party’s actions. In addition, the global economic meltdown will continue to hammer China’s economy, which shrank by nearly 10% in the first quarter of 2020. 

For a government that long boasted of its global role, there is a tragic lesson for Beijing. Had it actually practiced the kind of transparency and goodwill that it long claimed were the hallmarks of its foreign policy, not only would the world have been spared the worst of the coronacrisis, but the CCP could legitimately have claimed a leadership role. Instead, the next era of the world’s relations with China will be shaped by wariness, distrust, and a prudent distancing, just the opposite of what both Washington and Beijing have tried to accomplish over the past four decades.  

Michael Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “Asia’s New Geopolitics.”

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