Americans' opinion of China on the rise, survey finds

By Chen Weihua | | Updated: 2017-02-27 05:15

People who are concerned about China's relatively low favorability rating among Americans may breathe a sigh of relief from the latest Gallup poll.

The report released last Thursday shows that 50 percent of Americans say they have a favorable opinion of China, up from 44 percent in 2016 and 41 percent in 2012. The poll, conducted Feb 1-5 among 1,035 adults aged 18 and older, claims it is the highest in the last three decades, but still lower than the late 1980s.

This result somewhat contradicts a Pew Center survey conducted in January and released on Feb 10. It found that 65 percent say China is either an adversary (22 percent) or a serious problem (43 percent) while only about a third (31 percent) say China is not a problem.

A separate spring 2016 Pew survey showed that a majority (55 percent) of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of China. The negative views of China in the US increased by 26 percentage points from 2006 to 2016.

According to Pew surveys, Chinese unfavorable views of the US remained below 50 percent for most of Barack Obama's presidency.

In the same Gallup poll this month, China's favorability rating is higher than Saudi Arabia (31 percent) and Russia (28 percent), but lower than Mexico (64 percent) and surprisingly slightly lower than Cuba (51 percent). Canada, the US northern neighbor, received the highest favorability rating of 92 percent.

While the Gallup poll shows that more Democrats than Republicans held a favorable view of China and Pew Center surveys over the years show that young people had a better view of China than the older generation did, there has been no detailed explanation in the surveys of why about half of Americans and Chinese had negative views toward the other country.

It is disturbing that such a relatively high unfavorable view appears at a time when China and the US have become more interdependent. Two-way trade is approaching $600 billion. More than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in US colleges and universities and an increasing number of Chinese tourists are coming to the US. And US brands, from General Motors cars to Starbucks coffee, have a huge presence in China and are popular among Chinese consumers.

Since the favorability in the Gallup and Pew surveys refers mainly to the government rather than its people, there is no doubt that the negative views expressed by US leaders, politicians and news media about the Chinese government played a key role in shaping the public opinion of Americans.

For example, few might remember a time that President Barack Obama went on national TV to speak positively of China. Even when he talked about China's active role on climate change issues, he tried to tell Americans that it was he who pressured the Chinese government and inspired it to do so.

China was mentioned in almost every one of Obama's State of the Union addresses, but only as a bogeyman, bullying small countries, disrespecting and breaking international rules, stealing intellectual property and engaging in cyberattacks.

The rhetoric from the US Congress and news media is almost the same. China has often been described as a belligerent nation and a country that challenges the US and wants to dominate the world — this despite the fact that China has not engaged in military conflict with any other country since 1979, when it had a border war with Vietnam that lasted less than four weeks.

Most Americans like to believe their politicians that the US keeps the peace in the world, but they may not realize that China has never done anything to jeopardize world peace as the US has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

US politicians like to accuse other governments of manipulating public opinion, but what people have seen in US presidential campaigns and speeches by US leaders is their superb skill and desperate efforts to manipulate public opinion, including by repeatedly telling lies.

For example, US President Donald Trump last Thursday continued to accuse China of being a currency manipulator, despite the fact that US economists and Wall Street practitioners all believe this is not factual. Ordinary Americans who only listen to their political leaders are likely to be misled on the issue, and thus polled with an unfavorable view of China.

The relatively low favorability rating of Americans towards China and Russia largely conforms to the frequent negative rhetoric of their political leaders and news media.

The latest Gallup poll is indeed a good sign, yet it calls on politicians and news media to speak and report more responsibly and objectively while bidding to boost their own popularity and ratings.

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