Americans support tougher stance on China, Pew poll finds

89 per cent of Americans consider China a competitor or even an enemy rather than a partner.
89 per cent of Americans consider China a competitor or even an enemy rather than a partner.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Most Americans support the United States getting tougher on China on economic and human rights issues, and are increasingly keen on curtailing China's influence, according to a new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, released on Thursday (March 4).

Negative views on China have also risen, with 89 per cent of Americans considering China a competitor or even an enemy rather than a partner, up from 83 per cent in summer 2020.

And 48 per cent think limiting China's power and influence should be given top priority as a long-term foreign policy goal, up from 32 per cent who said the same in 2018.

The findings show that the Biden administration, which has called China its main strategic competitor and vowed to hold Beijing to account over its allegedly unfair trading practices and human rights abuses, is largely on the same page as the American public.

Some 2,600 randomly selected adults in America were surveyed in the first week of February - about a fortnight after President Joe Biden took office - for the poll, which Pew has conducted to track attitudes towards China since 2005.

The findings suggest broad public support for confronting and countering China. Some 70 per cent favour trying to promote human rights in China even if doing so harms economic ties, and 53 per cent say it is more important to get tougher on economic issues than to build a strong relationship with China.

Americans are also anxious about China's technological and military power, with more than half the respondents describing cyber-attacks from China, the loss of American jobs to China, China's growing military might and its human rights policies as "very serious" problems.

Republicans tend to be more hawkish on China, particularly conservative Republicans, nearly two-thirds of whom say they view China as an "enemy". Overall, 53 per cent of Republicans describe China as an enemy, while only 20 per cent of Democrats say the same.

Fewer Americans are confident in Mr Biden's handling of the US-China relationship, than in his ability to deal with other foreign policy issues. While 60 per cent say he can improve relationships with allies and deal effectively with climate change, only 53 per cent say they have faith that he will deal effectively with China.

So far, Americans' sentiments and judgments have been directed against the Chinese government rather than China's people, Pew's researchers found when they analysed responses to an open-ended question asking people to describe the first things that come to mind when thinking about China.

"Americans rarely brought up the Chinese people or the country's long history and culture in their responses. Instead, they focused primarily on the Chinese government - including its policies or how it behaves internationally - as well as its economy," the Pew researchers said in their report.

But there is at least one sign suggesting that some respondents also have negative views towards Chinese people.

More than half - 55 per cent - of the respondents favour limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the US, even though most Americans say they see international students as an asset and roughly a third of international students on American campuses are Chinese.

This support is stronger among older Americans and Republicans. Roughly 70 per cent of those aged 50 and older want to limit Chinese students, while nearly two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29 oppose the idea.

Thursday's Pew findings are in line with other polls showing that ordinary Americans' views on China have become increasingly negative in recent years, including a Gallup poll released on Monday showing that China's reputation among Americans has hit a historic low.

The Gallup poll of 1,000 respondents in the first fortnight of February found that Americans' favourable ratings of China are now at a record low of 20 per cent, the lowest since the survey was first conducted in 1979.

This level was lower even than the 34 per cent rating during August 1989, after the Chinese government's bloody crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.