Polls show widespread distrust toward China is growing in the U.S. over how China initially handled its coronavirus outbreak and ongoing human rights abuses.
At the same time, Chinese attitudes toward the U.S. are souring — while popular satisfaction with the Chinese state has grown since the central government quickly brought the pandemic under control through sometimes brutal methods.
These recent trends in public sentiment run parallel to a dramatic deterioration in U.S.-China relations, as nationalistic officials in each government play on popular fears and perceptions.
U.S. levels of anxiety about China are at historic highs. The latest Pew Research poll, from July, found 73% of American respondents have negative attitudes toward China — the highest percentage since Pew began collecting such data in 2005, when 35% reported negative attitudes toward China. In the July poll, 78% of respondents said they put "a great deal or fair amount of the blame" for the coronavirus pandemic on how China initially handled the first outbreak.
Negative U.S. opinion extends to Chinese business as well. An August poll of 2,200 American adults led by Morning Consult, a data intelligence firm, found more than half of respondents "saw China as a 'major threat' to America's technology and innovation dominance, making it the country with the highest-perceived threat level of any other listed in the survey." Nearly two-thirds of respondents were "very" or "somewhat concerned" by the prospect of a Chinese company operating social media apps and 77% expressed doubt that a Chinese company would protect data security.
In China, though, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have solidified public approval for the government — even after an early outpouring of public anger. "Surprisingly, [the coronavirus epidemic] actually increased people's satisfaction and support for their government," says Cary Wu, a sociology professor at Canada's York University who studies public opinion.
In April, Wu and several hundred Chinese student volunteers polled nearly 20,000 Chinese citizens about their government's handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
Nearly half of respondents said they had become more trusting of their national government since the outbreak. Only 3.3% said they had less trust in national leaders after the epidemic. The remainder said their levels of trust had not changed.
Overall, more than 90% of respondents said they were satisfied with how China's national leaders managed the outbreak.
Sociologists outside China constantly debate whether polling data from China is accurate. Participants likely lie to avoid political retaliation, some warn.
Wu kept his survey completely anonymous to protect those who took part in it, and his data is largely consistent with other polls in China finding high levels of satisfaction with the national government.
Polling done in China a month later, by the China Data Lab at the University of California San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy, also showed an increase in public trust of the state.
The poll showed a rise as well in negative Chinese perceptions of the U.S.
"On a scale of 1 to 10," researchers report, "the average favorability toward the U.S. dropped from 5.77 in June 2019 to 4.77 in May 2020." They attribute the decline to factors including "the dismal performance of the United States in handling the virus" and President Trump's blaming China for COVID-19.
"Many who were once very friendly towards the U.S., who went to school there, including the so-called elites, the middle class, the cosmopolitan, urbanites: they have become very critical of the U.S., because they are patriots now too," says Ren Yi, a Beijing-based Chinese political blogger who writes under the moniker "Chairman Rabbit," a reference to his childhood nickname.
The grandson of a former reformist party secretary, Ren, 40, says his own patriotism comes from disillusionment with American democracy under President Trump and U.S. pushback against China's control of Hong Kong. His blog is popular for its frank foreign policy analysis and observations of both Chinese and American cultures, which Ren became interested in while studying at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
In polls, levels of reported satisfaction with Chinese authorities tend to correlate with bureaucratic rank — the higher the level of government, the higher the level of approval. York University's Wu found that 89% of Chinese citizens thought national leaders had satisfactorily shared information about the virus during the coronavirus outbreak, but the figure steadily dropped for each corresponding rung of government: 77% approved of provincial leaders during the outbreak and 67% expressed approval for village-level officials.
"Chinese public opinion has this strange pattern where people actually say they trust the central government more than they trust the provincial government or the local government," says Jason Wu, a political scientist at Indiana University who studies political participation and public opinion. "One possibility is that [China has] set up this structure where [central government leaders] can deflect blame for things that go wrong onto local officials, and they even allow some kinds of protests against local officials, but not against national ones."
"There were two major reasons for people to support the Communist regime. One is nationalist sentiment. The other is a desire for political stability," explains Jie Chen, a political scientist at James Madison University who conducted past public opinion surveys in China.
Another possible reason: seeing the contrast between China's experience of the pandemic and that of other countries, say public opinion experts. China has confirmed just over 85,000 coronavirus cases this year. Globally, there are more than 25 million confirmed cases, and nearly 7 million in the U.S.
"The disappointing performance of Europe and the U.S. increased Chinese confidence in their own political system," says Qi Zhongxiang, the head of Womin Technology, a public relations consultancy that advises Chinese Communist Party and government bodies.
The firm bases its analysis on data it scrapes from Chinese and international social media sites and search engines. Qi gained notoriety earlier this year after the leak of a Womin analysis advising Beijing on how to quell public anger after a whistleblowing doctor's death from COVID-19.
Both Chinese and U.S. leaders have played up suspicions of the other to bolster their own popularity.
"That's a manipulatable issue," said Jeffrey Bader, who served as a senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. "A certain percentage of Americans whose anger at the Chinese for their initial handling of [the coronavirus] is always going to be there, and there will be American politicians who will exploit that."
Fang Fang, the pen name of Wuhan-based writer Wang Fang, believes China's younger generation — those born after the 1980s — are particularly susceptible to more nationalistic signaling within China. They "are followers of the will of the authority, excelling in discerning what the authorities think," she tells NPR via email.
Fang garnered international fame after chronicling life under lockdown in her Wuhan Diary from China's coronavirus epicenter. Her popularity elsewhere in the world triggered a barrage of online attacks from self-described Chinese patriots like Ren Yi, who saw her writing as a betrayal to be used by foreign countries to denigrate China.
"State media in China found that, actually, nationalism always sells," says Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese media.
"Nationalistic content has a potential to bring in more followers and more engagement, which means more advertising revenue, more investment," he says. "You publish a lot of nationalism posts and the Communist Party is happy and you get tons of likes and shares."
Increasingly negative U.S. attitudes toward China may only boost Chinese citizens' positive attitudes toward their own political system, some research suggests.
Scholars at Stanford University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong province published a study in June finding that Chinese students in the United States expressed more support for their own government if they encountered critical or racist news coverage of China.
"Chinese students who study in the United States are more predisposed to favor liberal democracy than their peers in China," the authors wrote. "However, anti-Chinese discrimination significantly reduces their belief that political reform is desirable for China and increases their support for authoritarian rule."
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.