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Pew: Vast Majority of Americans Consider China a Competitor or an Enemy

On Thursday March 4, the Pew Research Center released a new study that shows that roughly nine-in-ten U.S. adults (89 percent) view China as a “competitor” or an “enemy” rather than a “partner.” At the same time, most Americans support a firmer approach toward China, from prioritizing human rights issues to adopting a tougher economic and trade policy and restricting Chinese students.

The survey of 2,596 U.S. adults was conducted from February 1 through 7, 2021. Of those surveyed, 53 percent of Americans have confidence in Biden to deal effectively with China. A smaller number say they have confidence in him to handle any of the other foreign policy issues.

American’s trust toward Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued to backslide. Roughly eight-in-ten (82 percent) say they have little or no confidence in the Chinese leader.

Cold feelings toward China

A majority of Americans have negative feelings toward China, up substantially since 2018. Respondents indicated their feelings using a “feeling thermometer.” A rating of zero degrees means they feel as cold and negative as possible and a rating of 100 degrees means they feel as warm and positive as possible. A rating of 50 degrees means they don’t feel particularly positive or negative toward China. Based on this, 67 percent of Americans today feel “cold” toward China (a rating of 0 to 49). This is up 21 percentage points from the 46 percent who said the same in 2018.

Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans feel “very cold” toward China – rating it below 25 on the same 100-point scale. This is around twice as many as those who said the same thing in 2018 (23 percent). Similarly, the share of Americans who give China the lowest possible rating of zero has nearly tripled, from 9 percent in 2018 to around a quarter (24 percent) in 2021. Only 7 percent of Americans have “warm” feelings (51-75 percent) toward China and even fewer (4 percent) say they have “very warm” evaluations of the country (76-100).

Human rights a priority

Fully 90 percent of adults in the U.S. say the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people. This perspective is shared among large majorities of Americans across age, education and political groups.

Americans also want more focus to be placed on human rights – even at the expense of economic ties – in bilateral relations with China. When asked whether the U.S. should prioritize economic relations with China or promote human rights in China, 70 percent of Americans chose human rights.

Human rights in China is also the only issue with little partisan division. About seven-in-ten Democrats and Republicans say the U.S. should promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations between the two countries.

Tougher stance on China economic policies

64 percent believe current economic relations between the U.S. and China are bad. 52 percent of Americans want the U.S. to get tougher with China rather than to focus on building a stronger relationship.

This opinion is particularly prevalent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (72 percent of whom want the U.S. to get tougher on China), and especially among those who identify as conservative Republicans (81 percent of whom say the same). About six-in-ten Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents would rather focus on building stronger ties with China, a feeling that is largely consistent among liberal and more moderate or conservative Democrats.

Limits on Chinese Students

While the U.S. public generally welcomes international students, people are more divided when it comes specifically to Chinese students. A majority of Americans (55 percent) support limiting Chinese students studying in the U.S., including about one-in-five Americans who strongly support this idea. On the other hand, 43 percent oppose limitations on Chinese students, with 18 percent strongly opposing them.

Partisan divide

Is China an enemy of the United States? This is one of the most divisive issues in terms of partisanship.

A majority of Americans describe China as a competitor (55 percent) rather than as an enemy (34 percent) or a partner (9 percent). Partisans differ substantially in their evaluations of the U.S.-China relationship. Whereas 53 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party describe China as an enemy, only 20 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the same. Nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans say China is an enemy (64 percent), while only 37 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans say the same.

While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to describe China as a partner, they are also more likely to describe it as a competitor, with nearly two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners (65 percent) describing the relationship in this way.

When it comes to whether limiting China’s power and influence is a top priority, there is a 27-point gap between Republicans and Democrats (63 percent) among Republicans vs. (36 percent) among Democrats). This is one of the largest partisan gaps.

Partisans are also worlds apart on confidence in Biden to deal effectively with China: 83 percent from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, compared with only 19 percent from Republicans and Republican leaners.

Source: Pew Research Center, March 4, 2021