Is Donald Trump’s “adversarial approach” to China responsible for its bad image in the US, as Axios argues today? Or could it be that it’s China’s adversarial approach — and the consequences that come from it — that has a record number of Americans seeing China unfavorably? This actually started before the pandemic, in Pew Research’s previous iterations of attitudes about China, so keep an open mind about this lead from Axios:

Two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably, up from 47% two years ago, according to data from Pew that suggests the increasingly adversarial approach from Washington is spreading throughout the country.

The big picture: Americans have tended to view China negatively since 2013, but that sentiment has grown dramatically over the past two years amid the U.S-China trade war and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. In that time, the proportion of Americans who view China very unfavorably has more than doubled (15% to 33%).

In this case, correlation to the pandemic isn’t terribly useful, except to explain how we got from 60% last year to 66% in Pew’s March survey. One might wonder, actually, why it wasn’t any higher than that. Oddly enough, their favorable level (26%) didn’t change at all from Pew’s 2019 iteration, even while states began issuing stay-at-home protocols and millions of people were losing their jobs over the coronavirus outbreak.

So it wasn’t the pandemic that set this trend. Was it Trump? Look at these two charts provided by Pew about the trajectory of opinions about China over the last 15 years, especially after 2012 when attitudes changed most dramatically. The first is the overall picture, the second a breakout by partisan affiliation:

The true flip took place during Barack Obama’s second term, not during Trump’s. It’s tough to point to any particular catalyst for this, except perhaps China’s continued oppression and its continued malevolence against the US. It might have been the result of China’s hacking activities at the Office of Personnel Management and other American governmental systems, which got exposed in 2013. Whatever else this shows, it demonstrates that China’s bad rep preceded Trump among both Republicans and Democrats.

What’s most interesting about the trend is that it returned briefly to a tie during the 2016 campaign. That looks like it was driven mainly by a nine-point drop among Democrats, which suggests the opposite of Axios’ theory — that Trump’s populist and protectionist rhetoric might have actually boosted China’s overall perception, at least briefly. Note too that Republican levels of negativity continued to drop into 2018, so Trump’s initial trade fight with China doesn’t seem to have driven public opinion.

What changed in 2018, 2019, and 2020? Whatever it was, it impacted Americans of both parties, so again it doesn’t make too much sense to assign that to “the increasingly adversarial approach from Washington,” at least not directly. It might be better explained as a bipartisan shift toward economic populism and away from globalization, driven by increasing clarity of China’s actions and motives in the past few years. To some extent, the White House’s focus on those issues might have given them a higher profile, but it looks more like a return to the previous trend that the 2016 election interrupted.

Whatever created this trend, though, one thing’s for sure — China won’t recover its standing with Americans for a very long time after this pandemic. If ever, as long as the Communist Party runs it. The COVID-19 pandemic might not have created this trend, but we can be sure it will cement the perception that Xi Jinping’s China is a threat to the US and everyone else, one way or another.