Barely a day before Donald Trump set off a recent diplomatic crisis between China and the United States by backing Taiwan in a chatty phone call with the island’s president, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published poll results from the US and China that found a surprising correlation between public attitudes in the two countries on numerous issues.
People were asked about their perceptions of relative power and influence between the two countries, and the importance of globalization and shared world leadership.
Trump’s assurances of support for the Taiwanese, upending nearly four decades of US policy — made before his presidency had even begun — may have played to an audience that cheered political and economic attacks on the Chinese during the American election campaign. But those cheers may not have reflected broader American opinion, according to the results of polls taken in the US in June this year. The parallel Chinese polling, in 15 major metropolitan areas of China, was done in September.
The majority of Americans opted for international cooperation and multilateral solutions, a sign that as the United Nations enters a tough new era in relations with the US there may be untapped support in the American public for the UN and other international organizations.
The Chicago Council, which fosters intellectual dialogue among nations, has been polling Americans for four decades, asking those surveyed whether the US should take an active part in, or stay out of, world affairs. During that time, a majority of Americans have always favored an active role. This year, the question was asked in Chinese polling for the first time and respondents also said they wanted an active role for their country. There were other broad areas of agreement and some significant gaps in attitudes toward each other and the world.
“There is perhaps no more important bilateral relationship in the world today than between the United States and China — the world’s two most important players in terms of economics and security,” the authors of an analysis of the polling report, Karl Friedhoff and Craig Kafura of the Council, wrote.
Since these polls were taken, Trump has by many expert accounts thrown into peril the understanding that American and Chinese governments and their diplomats have been building since the 1970s. That includes, most recently, reaching a common policy on climate change paving the way for the formal global adoption this year of the 2015 Paris agreement on binding limits to global temperature increases.
Moreover, today, the Chinese government returned an American underwater drone it seized on Dec. 15 in international waters near the Philippines.
The 2016 polling in the US was conducted for the Chicago Council by GfK Custom Research. The Chinese survey was done by Dataway Horizon, an international polling company based in China.
Some findings of the two surveys include:
• Sixty-four percent of Americans polled said that they believed it would be “best for the future of the country” to be active in world affairs. Sixty-six percent of Chinese respondents made the same choice. More Chinese, 38 percent, said they should be the dominant world leader compared with 29 percent of Americans who chose US world dominance. Both, however, gave majority approval to a shared leadership role, and neither Americans nor Chinese (both at 8 percent) thought they should play no role as global leaders.
• When asked in September about whether Chinese-American relations were improving or worsening — after China had been under attack and threats from candidate Trump, but before his foray into Taiwan ties, a solid majority of Chinese (61 percent) said that relations were worsening. Forty percent of Americans who were polled thought that relations with China were worsening and 46 percent said they were staying about the same.
• On the more positive side, 63 percent of Americans and 58 percent of Chinese thought the US and China should seek “friendly cooperation and engagement” between the two countries. Still, “Chinese and American publics express very different mutual perceptions,” the authors of the poll-findings analysis wrote. “While Chinese feel warmly to the United States, rating the US a 67 on a scale from 0 to 100 — where 100 is very warm — Americans rate China a cooler 44.”
• Since economic fears and perceptions have driven voters around the democratic world into populist camps promising quick solutions, some economic findings in the Chicago Council poll are pertinent. Chinese generally accept (56 percent) that their parents were worse off a generation ago, which is demonstrable in the rapidly modernizing and better living standards in Chinese cities. Only 34 percent of Americans polled think that their parents were worse off, with 57 percent saying the next generation in the US will be worse off than respondents are now. By contrast, the Chinese were upbeat about the future, with 63 percent saying that their children will be better off than those polled are now.
• Yet 71 percent of Americans said that economic strength was more important in determining a country’s power and influence than military strength. Chinese chose military strength slightly above economic prowess: 50 percent to 48 percent, respectively.
• Perceptions matter. Americans in this survey not only see a future that looks bleaker economically but also seem more pessimistic about Chinese intentions to make it worse. Sixty-six percent of Americans told poll-takers that China is “actively working to undermine US influence.”
Does this sound a little defeatist in the face of an energetic, optimistic Chinese challenge?
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.