News / Asia

SERIES: What Americans Think About China

FILE - U.S. and Chinese flags flutter outside a hotel in Beijing, Sept. 5, 2012.
FILE - U.S. and Chinese flags flutter outside a hotel in Beijing, Sept. 5, 2012.

Editor’s note:  Looking through VOA's listener mail, we came across a letter that asked a simple question. "What do Americans think about China?" We all care about the perceptions of others. It helps us better understand who we are. VOA Reporter Michael Lipin begins a series providing some answers to our listener's question. His assignment: present a clearer picture of what Americans think about their chief world rival, and what drives those perceptions. As part of this series, Lipin also explores U.S. attitudes toward Chinese Americans and Chinese products.

Two common American attitudes toward China can be identified from the latest U.S. public opinion surveys published by Gallup and Pew Research Center in the past year.

First, most of the Americans surveyed have unfavorable opinions of China as a whole, but do not view the country as a threat toward the United States at the present time.
 
Second, most survey respondents expect China to pose an economic and military threat to the United States in the future, with more Americans worried about the perceived economic threat than the military one.

What do Americans think of China as a whole?What do Americans think of China as a whole?
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What do Americans think of China as a whole?
What do Americans think of China as a whole?

China viewed unfavorably
 
To understand why most Americans appear to have negative feelings about China, analysts interviewed by VOA say a variety of factors should be considered. Primary among them is a lack of familiarity.
 
"Most Americans do not have a strong interest in foreign affairs, Chinese or otherwise," says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
 
Many of those Americans also have never traveled to China, in part because of the distance and expense. "That means that like most human beings, they take short cuts to understanding China," Daly says.

Rather than make the effort to regularly consume a wide range of U.S. media reports about China, analysts say many Americans base their views on widely-publicized major events in China's recent history.
 
"The Chinese government's image took a huge hit in the eyes of Americans after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre (of student protesters by Chinese troops), and it has not really recovered since," says David Wertime, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989.A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989.
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A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989.
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989.

Daly says American attitudes also have been influenced more recently by Beijing's refusal to release jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. The human rights advocate won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, but remained imprisoned by China's Communist rulers for perceived subversive activities.

The picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is carried by a protester demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo outside the China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, October 11, 2010.The picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is carried by a protester demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo outside the China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, October 11, 2010.
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The picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is carried by a protester demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo outside the China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, October 11, 2010.
The picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is carried by a protester demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo outside the China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, October 11, 2010.

"Americans, by and large, are uncomfortable with authoritarianism," says Daly.
 
He says many Americans also lack understanding of China's human rights progress in recent decades. "It is nowhere near the level of freedom that Americans enjoy, but there have been enormous gains in the health and well-being of the Chinese people," he says.
 
U.S. media coverage of China also tends to emphasize conflictual elements in U.S.-China relations, says Elizabeth Economy, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst in New York.
 
She says these elements include disagreements between the U.S. and Chinese governments in how to resolve international conflicts and economic disputes about cyber security and intellectual property rights.
 
"In some matters, China acts unilaterally, while in others, it does not act in concert with the United States," Economy says. "(As a result,) there is a sense that the United States does not have much leverage with China."

China - US series, What does US think of China's relationship with US?China - US series, What does US think of China's relationship with US?
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China - US series, What does US think of China's relationship with US?
China - US series, What does US think of China's relationship with US?

China seen as benign
 
U.S. opinions on China are more positive when Americans are asked the narrower question of how they characterize Beijing's relationship with Washington.
 
Polls show that most Americans appear to view China either as friendly to the United States, or as neither a partner nor an enemy.
 
Analysts say many Americans see little risk of attack or invasion by China, which has never been at war with the United States.
 
Former U.S. state and defense department official Leslie Gelb, also a president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says China is the first major world power in history to fall short of being a global military power.
 
"China's military power is pretty much restricted to its own borders and shores. The United States is a global military power, and they are just a power in their area," says Gelb.
 
He notes that China's 2014 defense budget of $132 billion is only about one-quarter of U.S. government spending on defense this year ($496 billion).
 
"We can put modern aircraft carriers into the (Asia-Pacific) area. They are backwards in the most important naval kind of power," Gelb says.
 
China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers in active service.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.
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Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.

Daly of the Wilson Center says another reason for the perception of China as benign is that many Americans are unaware of U.S. interests in Asia, where Beijing has become more assertive in maritime territorial disputes with U.S. allies such as Japan.

One of the disputes involves a group of East China Sea islands  administered by Japan and claimed by China, which has increased aerial and naval patrols of the surrounding waters in recent years. The islands are known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
 
"When Americans hear words like Senkaku and Diaoyu, they think, this has nothing to do with me," Daly says. "It is questionable if Americans realize what it would mean for the United States and other countries should China become the hegemon of the Western Pacific."

How concerned are Americans about China's military?How concerned are Americans about China's military?
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How concerned are Americans about China's military?
How concerned are Americans about China's military?

Military considered a threat
 
Daly says many Americans also have no idea about China's current defense capabilities. But, Gallup says most respondents see the Chinese military as a threat to the United States in the future, with 87 percent labelling that threat as "important" or "critical."
 
China has been rapidly expanding its defense spending, with this year's figure ($132 billion) marking a 12 percent increase on the year before.

A Chinese military plane H-6 bomber.A Chinese military plane H-6 bomber.
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A Chinese military plane H-6 bomber.
A Chinese military plane H-6 bomber.

"That is far greater than any other country," says Gelb. "So Americans and particularly China's neighbors are beginning to get nervous. And those neighbors have started poking at us (the United States) to protect their (maritime territorial) rights in the region."

How concerned are Americans about China's economy?How concerned are Americans about China's economy?
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How concerned are Americans about China's economy?
How concerned are Americans about China's economy?

Economic weight
 
Polls show most Americans also see China posing an economic threat to the United States in the coming years. China is the United States' second largest trading partner, third largest market for U.S. exports, and biggest source of U.S. imports.
 
Council on Foreign Relations analyst Economy says U.S. media often portray China with a lot of hype, emphasizing its status as the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
 
"The media also have a tendency to frame U.S.-China economic issues as competitive," she says. They ask, "Who is winning the clean energy race? Or whose infrastructure is better?"

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Gallup and Pew Research say about half of Americans believe China's economy already is the world's biggest, even though it has yet to surpass the United States.
 
But, China's gross domestic product grew 7.7 percent last year, much faster than the U.S. growth of 1.9 percent.
 
Daly says the Chinese economy will become the largest in absolute terms in the "not too distant future." He says that prospect worries many Americans who believe their nation should remain the most powerful.
 
"Americans have a fairly deep and broad fear of the United States losing its global primacy, and China is the primary candidate for taking its place," he says.
 
A. Michael Spence, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, says Americans also tend to see the rise of developing countries like China as the main cause of U.S. unemployment and income distribution problems.
 
"The evidence is that these [problems] are related to both technology and globalization, but globalization (and China) get most of the attention," Spence says. "One strand of thought also says (the Chinese) are hurting (the United States) because they exploit workers and have unsafe and environmentally unsound [working] conditions."
 
Gallup says more Americans rate China's economy as a "critical" threat to the United States than those who see the Chinese military posing the same threat. Analysts say that is because China's impact on the U.S. job market feels more immediate to Americans than Chinese military moves in Asia.
 
What do Americans think of the Chinese?
 
The Gallup and Pew Research surveys did not ask respondents to distinguish between China's people and its Communist rulers.
 
Wertime, also co-founder of China blog Tea Leaf Nation, says making that distinction could result in very different answers.
 
"It is possible for an American to feel that the people of China are favorably disposed [toward Americans], and not to have a good image of the Chinese government," he says.
 
VOA will examine other aspects of U.S. attitudes toward China as this series progresses.
 
Michael Lipin was born in the United States, grew up in Hong Kong, was educated at Oxford and returned to Hong Kong to begin his reporting career. In the decade after Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, he covered economics for The Standard newspaper, was a writer and producer for CNN International, and a producer and host for ATV, Asia Television. He joined VOA in its Hong Kong bureau in 2005 and moved to VOA/Washington in 2007, where he is a reporter and program host.
 


Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: joe Wakefield from: US
May 23, 2014 1:57 PM
If you are Chinese or Chinese lover then you are going to justify the Southeast issue is okay for China to invade other countries in this South Sea. The average American will not and never understand fully the China game – most of us will never guest when China throw a rock-and hide the hand.
Before WWII Chinese used to control the Pacific Ocean – After the war – the American influence is far more than Chinese. Now Chinese people think they are stronger and biggest nation surpass US and EU– They are allies with Russian, Iran, etc… to against US and the world.
Without the US act as world police – China takes Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Philippine, Indonesia, in a blink of your eye.
How I see China – China is a thread for the world peace and US. In the past China is an empire country that means they are and their ancestors always wanted to invade small countries around and control others.
Look as Tibet and Taiwan. If the world and US did not say something to depend the right of those weak countries then China will swallow them. China used money to buy Vietnamese official, and now the Vietnamese official did not want to give their country as China wanted. China already had war with Vietnam in three different time.
If China swallow all those Southeast countries – they will be stronger and moved on to the West. China invasion plan must be destroy when it’s still small. Like General Martin Dempsey said “We are response to the thread” as Chinese general tried to insult and direct thread to US to involve about the Southeast issue.

by: Mehtasaab from: Washington DC
May 23, 2014 1:31 PM
Balance of power is changing if US will not move toward India. US will lose control if US improves relationship with new management of India (BJP - Bhartiya Janta Party), Also India have distrust USA since 1947. USA supported Pakistan. Pakistan is not friend of US but behaving like a friend. USA should divert all resources toward India and Japan not toward Pakistan.

by: Mehtasaab from: Washington, DC
May 23, 2014 1:22 PM
It is in the interest of American public if China remain communist otherwise American will have pay higher cost of Goods from China.
Also American can control China by controlling trade with China (Trade war) otherwise China can lean toward Russia. Also China can be biggest buy of Weapons and Plains. China needs to increase defense expenses to keep balance i n South Asia specially from Japan and India.

by: ZX from: Shanghai
May 19, 2014 10:14 AM
Funny as it always looks those some like to use wording like red China or communist China...poor guy open your eyes or your ears. My sympathy!

by: Voo moo moo from: USA
May 16, 2014 4:54 PM
I see the simple fact the red china supporting NK regime that made the red china as devil in my eyes...The country as a whole is getting richer and so fast that it becomes a lot like a tuhao Chinese ...bullies, bellicose and arrogant...simply a menace of the world...

by: B K from: Mars
May 16, 2014 4:07 AM
"Most Americans do not have a strong interest in foreign affairs, Chinese or otherwise,"
It is true that few people like to learn the cultures lower than themselves.
Like me,I am Chinese,not interested in cultures of Africa or middle east or elsewhere but Japan,UK,France,North america

by: Anonymous
May 16, 2014 12:52 AM
"Most Americans do not have a strong interest in foreign affairs, Chinese or otherwise," says Robert Daly.

Mr. Daly is a genius. Someone give him a Nobel Peace Prize. And Mr. Lipin for exemplary reporting. Those fourteen words define all the blunders of U.S. foreign politics for the past fifteen years. It is better to walk a mile around the world than to read a thousand of pages of foreign politics at a prestigious university.

Seriousness aside, the Chinese Internet Navy (a.k.a. wumao) does a really good job immediately tackling China-related articles. They still should read the article and improve their response policies.

by: HANNAH from: CHINA
May 15, 2014 11:40 PM
China is simply growing so fast that it has changed its view of the outside world. MANY PEOPLE SAY BAD WORDS OF CHINA JUST OUT OF ENVY. EVERY COUNTRY HAS GOOD AND BAD PEOPLE. I JUST HOPE THE WORLD CAN BE PEACEFUL FOREVER,NO MORE HUNGER ,NO WAR ,ETC.

by: Mark from: Virginia
May 15, 2014 9:28 PM
I don't understand why it is so important for America to feel like it has to be on top of the economic heap, or why we feel we have to be a global power. That is archaic thinking, in my mind, harkening back to the Cold War years when it was 'us' vs. 'them' in regards to Democracy vs. Communism. Truman called the United States, Britain, France and Russia as the 'Four Policemen' and sometimes the 'Five Policemen' when he included China. But now, the world does not need 'Policemen' and 'world powers', what is needed are World Partners.
Each country is different, and we all must respect each other's form of government, even if we don't fully understand or agree with it. It's a different world we live in now than it was 50 years ago, but our thinking has not progressed far from what it was 50 years ago, on either side of the ideological fence.
The Chinese people, like the American people, are not directly involved with the politics and foreign policies of their respective countries. Sure, we directly elect our officials (while the Chinese do not), but once our politicians are sworn in, we have no longer any control over what they do, or say in the government. We just hope to make the right choices when we cast our votes and trust to luck that the rest of the country makes the 'right decision' as well. Policies and decisions on both sides are in the hands of a comparative few and do not always reflect the consensus and attitudes of the people they represent.
I believe that people (as a whole) are good, not matter what form of government they live under, whether they are Chinese, Russian, American, French, etc. but in our minds humans have a tendency to 'put all in the same bucket' when we think about the actions of a governing body and the decisions they make on behalf of the country they govern. "Americans are war-mongering" or "Chinese are evil" or "Syrians are bloodthirsty" is what others think of a people as a whole when it is the government's actions that form those opinions in other people's minds in other countries.
And, lastly, it is what the people read in the news and the opinions of the media that create most of those images in the masses' minds. Do all the Chinese people regard the South China Sea is theirs in its entirety, or is it what we believe from what we read in the news? I cannot answer that exclusively because I have never been to China, or spoken to a native born Chinese citizen.
Of course, these are my opinions, and do not reflect the opinions and attitudes of all Americans. Your mileage may vary.

by: meanbill from: USA
May 15, 2014 7:59 PM
China has told the whole wide world, that they have suffered over a hundred years of humiliation from "Gunboat Treaties" and "Unequal Treaties" forced upon them by the US, Europe, Russia, and Japan, and they will never ever give up one inch of the motherland again -- wherever that sovereign inch of land may be.... DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE....
China's military is for the defense of Chinese land, and nothing else... and peaceful co-existence.. .... REALLY

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