Why you should care
U.S. opinions about Beijing are being swayed by geopolitics — and not in a positive way.
A walk through Beijing’s Sanlitun shopping district takes you past a bustling Starbucks, a McDonald’s packed with Chinese customers, ads for Hollywood movies playing at a local theater, and a pirated DVD shop selling box sets of American sitcoms and Taylor Swift CDs. This ingrained cultural influence is largely a one-way street in U.S.-China relations. And it is vital to understanding why Chinese perceptions of the United States have suffered less than American perceptions of China during the protracted trade war.
The growing tariff tit for tat between China and the U.S. has raised concerns and reshaped global public opinion of the world’s two largest economies. A 2018 Bloomberg survey found 34 percent of global respondents believed the trade war would have broader implications for the world economy, with 1 in 5 saying the U.S. will be the harder hit. And for good reason: The International Monetary Fund predicts the trade war could cause $455 billion of world gross domestic product to evaporate in 2020 alone. However, research suggests that when it comes to the two countries involved, the conflict has harmed American public perceptions of China much more than Chinese opinions of the U.S. According to an August 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research Center:
The percentage of Americans holding a favorable view of China has fallen by 40 percent since 2017.
Only 26 percent of those surveyed saw China in a positive light, down from 38 percent last year and 44 percent the year before. At its highest point, in 2006, 51 percent of Americans regarded China favorably. As part of the 2019 survey, 60 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China versus 47 percent in 2018 and a low of 29 percent in 2005.
Meanwhile, in China, opinions about the U.S. have stayed fairly steady. A survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF), From Democracy Promotion to Democracy Attraction, published in May, found that only 17 percent of Chinese people surveyed had an unfavorable view of America, with 57 percent reporting a somewhat or very favorable view. That’s comparable to the 55 percent reported in 2017 in a survey of China’s general public by the Committee of 100, an organization that furthers China-U.S. relations. When asked about the future of China’s system of government, 53 percent of people in the EGF survey said they wanted it to become more like America’s in the next 20 years, as opposed to 17 percent who wanted China to go the other way.
The key to this disparity may be soft power, noncoercive control that countries use to affect public opinion abroad, often through disseminating their cultural artifacts. “Chinese admiration for America and Americans has a lot to do with the soft power generated by our cultural exports. American movies and music — often pirated — circulate widely within China, and likely contribute a certain amount of goodwill,” says Mark Hannah, a senior fellow at EGF who authored the study on Chinese public opinion. “We also found that one of the biggest determinants of pro-American sentiment in the countries we surveyed was a connection to a diaspora community within the U.S.”
The escalation in the trade war has gone beyond painting China in a negative light and suggests more Americans now see the world’s most populated country as a threat to U.S, interests. In a separate poll conducted by Chicago Council Surveys in late February, 63 percent saw China and the U.S. as rivals, up from 49 percent a year earlier.
Karl Friedhoff, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who specializes in public opinion and Asia policy, says that while it’s sometimes difficult to quantify, people he has spoken to in China have maintained a positive outlook on the U.S. And America’s history of soft power success plays a vital role. “That helps explain why we haven’t seen a strong reaction among the Chinese public to the trade war. That, and the fact that the Trump administration’s approach is seen as a curiosity rather than an American attempt to destroy China,” Friedhoff says. As to whether Chinese observers actually like Trump’s approach, experts say there’s not enough quantitative data to judge.
This long-standing cultural influence — combined with the negative press around Chinese tech firms like ZTE and Huawei that has deterred American consumers from buying Chinese goods — helps explain why Chinese perceptions of America have suffered so much less than American perceptions of China during the trade war.
As trade relations continue to spiral in a downward trajectory, it’s unclear how much traction Taylor Swift albums and Friends box sets will enjoy in the face of an escalating economic conflict. But for now, cultural exports — as part of America’s wider soft power engine — seem to be doing their part in protecting America’s image. In China at least.