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?
    x
    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.
    x
    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.
    x
    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?
    x
    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.
    x
    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?
    x
    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.
    x
    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?
    x
    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?"

    x

    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

    You May Like

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 2
     Previous    
    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
         

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora