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General Attitudes Toward China

Americans lean toward negative views of China’s role in the world, its government, economic system, leadership, and its human rights record. There is little optimism that the human rights record will improve or that China will become more democratic. Trust in China is fairly low.

Americans lean toward a negative view of China’s role in the world. Between January 2005 and April 2006 BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA and WorldPublicOpinion.org asked on three occasions whether China is having a mostly positive or mostly negative influence in the world. In each case a slight majority or plurality said it was having a negative influence—January 2005 (46%), November 2005 (53%), and April 2006 (49%).. Furthermore, three out of four Americans has an unfavorable view of “how China uses military power and the threat of force,” while just 19% say they have a favorable view (WPO April 2006). [1]

Attitudes about the Chinese government and economic system are quite unfavorable. In the April 2006 WPO poll, 80% said they have an unfavorable opinion of China’s system of government (40% very unfavorable), while 66% had an unfavorable view of China’s economic system.[2]

Chinese president Hu Jintao also gets low approval ratings from Americans. Sixty-three percent have an unfavorable view of Hu, while just 27% have a favorable view of the Chinese leader. Attitudes about Hu are also more unfavorable than those of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was rated in the same poll. [3]

General attitudes toward China changed dramatically after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since the 1980s, Gallup has asked respondents to say how they feel about China on a four-point scale: "Is your overall opinion of...China...very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" In March 1989, a strong majority of 72% had a "very favorable" or "mostly favorable" impression of China. However, on June 3, 1989, student pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square culminated in armed suppression by the Chinese military. In mid-June, when a Los Angeles Times poll ran the same question Gallup asked in March, it found that favorable impressions of China plummeted from 72% to just 16%. By August 1989, another Gallup survey revealed that favorable responses had bounced back some, but to less than half of the pre-Tiananmen level (31%).

Since that time, attitudes toward China have gradually improved, so that views are now divided. Over the last few years the percentage giving a favorable and unfavorable response has been consistently divided, though recent polling has found a slight majority with favorable views of China. In May 2006 Pew found 52% saying favorable (12% very, 40% somewhat) and 29% saying unfavorable (10% very, 19% somewhat). The most recent Gallup poll of February 2006 found 44% saying favorable (4 % very, 40% mostly) and 49% saying unfavorable (14% very, 35% mostly). [4]

There have been a number of other methods used to assess the public's feeling about China using various scales. In most cases, the mean score has been just slightly on the negative side of the scale. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and other organizations have used a "feeling thermometer", which gives respondents a scale from 1 to 100 on which to rate countries; a score of 100 if warm and favorable, 50 is neutral, and 1 is cold and unfavorable. The mean "temperature" given for China in 2006 has varied from 42-44 and in 2004 was 44. In June 2003 the German Marshall Fund asked the same question and the mean response was 46 degrees.[5] Given the abrupt and persisting change that came with the Tiananmen Square events, it seems clear that attitudes about China are heavily influenced by its human rights behavior. Indeed, US public attitudes about China's human rights record are quite negative. In May 1999, a very strong 69% majority told Gallup pollsters that China does a "very bad job" (34%) or "mostly bad job" (35%) "respecting the human rights of its citizens."[6] In a June 1999 Potomac Associates and Opinion Dynamics survey, more than 3 in 5 said that their "impression of the situation in China concerning human rights" was "very unfavorable" (37%) or "somewhat unfavorable" (25%). Thirty-one percent thought the situation to be very or somewhat favorable.[7] And a March 1999 Pew survey found an even larger majority (78%) believing "human rights violations in China" are at least a "somewhat serious problem" for the United States; just 17% felt that human rights violations in China were not a serious problem for the US.[8] When Gallup asked respondents in August 1995 to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the "level of individual freedom granted to its citizens" by China, only 12% gave a response above 5. The most common response, given by 23% was the lowest rating, 1.[9]

Americans see little sign of improvement on this front. Asked in April 2006 whether China has become more or less “democratic and responsive to its people,” only 24% said it has become more democratic, while 49% believe it has “stayed about the same” and 18% said it has gotten less democratic. In the past, several Pew studies consistently found that a majority of Americans did not believe "China's government is becoming more democratic and is allowing more freedoms for Chinese citizens." In May 2001, 62% expressed this view.[10] Skepticism about China’s progress towards democracy is closely related to greater doubts about improvements in its human rights practices (see “Human Rights and Relations with China”)

Americans are also skeptical about China’s movement towards the free-market system. In the May 2001 Pew poll, a 47% plurality said they did not believe "China's economy is becoming more like the kind of free-market system found the United States," while 34% percent thought it was becoming more like the American system. This was virtually unchanged from early 1999.[11]

Americans have also shown pessimism about US policies influencing China to change, and about China and the US finding common ground. In a May 2001 Pew survey, a majority (56%) said it did not think it "possible for the US, through its policies, to have much of an effect on making China more democratic." Only 34% felt it is possible. When asked in a March 1999 Louis Harris poll if "the US and China will be able to work together to adopt the same common values about democracy and a market economy," just 29% thought that would happen. Nearly two-thirds (65%) rejected the possibility.[12]

Trust in China continues to be fairly low. In February 2006 in the midst of the controversy over the management of US seaports by foreign companies, respondents were asked whether companies from different countries should be allowed to own cargo operations at US seaports. A majority (65%) believed that companies from China should not be allowed to own these operations, more than those who opposed ownership by companies from Arab Countries friendly to the US (56% should not) and France (50% should not).[13] In a January 2000 Hart Research poll nearly half (48%) said "compared with other countries that the US trades with," China was seen as below average in "living up to the agreements it makes with the United States." Just 32% thought that China was average (25%) or above average (7%) in this regard.[14]



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Recent Data Updates
China - August 2008 (PDF)