Dianne Feinstein hardest hit? It likely comes as no surprise that Americans overwhelmingly blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic, for two reasons. For one thing, it literally came from China, and China repeatedly lied about it, which allowed it to break out into the pandemic the world sees today.
And for another, hardly anyone puts the blame elsewhere. This is as close to consensus as we’ll ever see, and that consensus carries significant political consequences — for China, and for politicians and corporations here in the US:
More than three-quarters of Americans — 78 percent — place a “great deal or fair amount of the blame” on China for the virus’ spread around the world, according to the study published Thursday by the Pew Research Center.
Another 73 percent of respondents said they had “unfavorable” views of the country — a figure that rose 26 percentage points since 2018, the surveyors found.
The New York Post notes that the Pew study shows that COVID-19 might have reinforced political support for a “get tough” policy on China. That has to be good news for Donald Trump, who has used tariffs and a trade war to force China into backing down on intellectual property theft and economic manipulation:
Americans hold equally chilly views of China’s President Xi Jinping, with 77 percent responding that they either have “not too much confidence” or “no confidence at all” that he would “do the right thing” with regards to world affairs.
Pollsters found Americans also seem poised to support strong actions against China in response to the country’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. It’s been estimated more than 1 million members of the minority ethnic group in the country are being forcibly detained in Chinese concentration camps.
The decline of China’s standing has been in motion for a few years, so this isn’t entirely COVID-19 related. Pew’s chart shows that public opinion started shifting not long after Trump’s election, which ended a very brief period of equanimity:
Thanks to the pandemic, though, those views are hardening in other ways. The term “unfavorable” covers a lot of ground, but Americans have become more specific about their hostility toward China, Pew finds:
Around one-in-four (26%) also describe China as an enemy of the United States – almost double the share who said this when the question was last asked in 2012. Another 57% say China is a competitor of the U.S., while 16% describe it as a partner.
As the U.S. imposes sanctions on Chinese companies and officials over Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs and other minority groups – after originally resisting these actions – the American public appears poised to support a tough stance. Around three-quarters (73%) say the U.S. should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms bilateral economic relations, while 23% say the U.S. should prioritize strengthening economic relations with China at the expense of confronting China on human rights issues.
More Americans also think the U.S. should hold China responsible for the role it played in the outbreak of the coronavirus (50%) than think this should be overlooked in order to maintain strong bilateral economic ties (38%). But, when asked about economic and trade policy toward China, Americans are slightly more likely to prefer pursuing a strong economic relationship (51%) to getting tough on China (46%). Still, more support getting tough on China now than said the same in 2019, when 35% held that view.
The partisan breakdowns on these questions are still rather dramatic. For instance, 73% of Republicans say that China’s handling of the Wuhan outbreak is a “great deal to blame” for the pandemic, while only 38% of Democrats agree. Almost the same gap exists on holding China responsible for the pandemic in official policy regardless of what it does to relations (71%R, 37%D), and the priority of getting tougher rather than repairing relations (66%R, 33%D).
Pew does note that anti-China sentiment is rising in both political parties, however:
Americans in both major parties now see China much more negatively than in the recent past, but Republicans are more likely than Democrats to express skepticism across a range of measures, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. The survey, conducted in June and July, comes as Donald Trump and Joe Biden both make China a key campaign issue ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
Republicans have long held more unfavorable views of China than Democrats, but unfavorable views have climbed rapidly among both parties over the past year. In the new survey, 83% of Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party say they have an unfavorable view of China, compared with 68% of Democrats and Democratic leaners – record highs for both groups. The 15 percentage point gap between the parties is also among the widest in Pew Research Center surveys dating to 2005. Republicans are also much more likely than Democrats to say they have a very unfavorable view of China (54% vs. 35%).
And there is one point of near agreement — human rights:
Democrats, in turn, are more likely than Republicans to say that the U.S. should promote human rights in China over prioritizing economic relations with China. But at least seven-in-ten in both partisan coalitions hold this opinion.
The split on that is 70% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats — another point of consensus.
This is a big issue heading into November. Joe Biden started off his campaign last year claiming that China represented no threat to the United States. Now however, Biden is recasting himself as a China hawk:
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is articulating an agenda aimed at giving the United States a competitive edge over China and cracking down on Beijing’s abuses, going on offense against President Trump on an issue that the incumbent has made a focus of his reelection effort.
Biden hasn’t yet delivered a comprehensive address on foreign policy or China, but he has sprinkled his policy proposals throughout remarks on his domestic agenda and public statements on his plans for the economy, human rights and the environment.
Earlier this month, Biden proposed new policies aimed at cracking down on China’s competitive economic advantages and said he would take measures to confront Beijing’s human rights abuses with respect to Hong Kong and camps in the country’s Xinjiang region.
His efforts come at a time when Trump has sought to cast Biden as weak on China as he steps up his bid for reelection by emphasizing his administration’s confrontational approach to China on trade, intellectual property theft and other issues.
Democrats have clearly watched this trend with some concern, and rightfully so. Americans had already shifted away from Biden’s poo-poohing of the China threat well before his dismissive comments in May 2019. After four months of the Wuhan Flu economic devastation, they’re getting a much clearer view of Beijing’s multilayered danger. Biden needed to shift his posture, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether that is merely a posture or whether he’d take China seriously after the election is over.
This is something that should worry American corporations, too. The “Made in China” tag is going to carry a lot more negative baggage in the future, as will pandering to Beijing in entertainment and sports industries. This is a time to cut bait and focus on core audiences. Pandering to Xi Jinping will carry a lot more economic consequences in the future outside the political arena as well as inside it.