News / Asia

NEW SERIES: What Americans Think About China

U.S. flag and China's flag flutter in winds at a hotel in Beijing, Sept. 5, 2012.
U.S. flag and China's flag flutter in winds at 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.

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?


 
Most Americans view China 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?



Most Americans see China 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?



Most Americans see China's military as 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?


 
Most Americans see China's economy as a threat
 
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. "So (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 people?
 
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 that issue and 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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

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.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid