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Human Rights and Relations With China
A majority or plurality has consistently favored taking a strong stand on China's human rights policies, including limiting trade as a way of signaling disapproval, even if this might result in economic and diplomatic costs. At the same time, Americans oppose taking a confrontational or punitive stance with China on the human rights issue. Americans perceive China as quite undemocratic and are pessimistic that it will become democratic in the near future. Here too they favor putting some pressure on China to become more democratic but resist methods that are highly confrontational.

Although Americans generally support engaging China, polls reveal that Americans place a high priority on taking a stand against China's human rights policies, even if this might jeopardize diplomatic and trade relations.

Most recently, a July 2005 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll offered two statements about the US relationship with China. A majority (53%) agreed with the statement “we should demand that China improves its human rights policies if China wants to continue to enjoy its current trade status with the US,” while just 39% agreed that “we should maintain good trade relations with China, despite disagreements we might have with its human rights policies.”[1] In a May 2005 German Marshall Fund Poll, a majority (52%) also said that “because of human rights violations the US should limit its economic relations with China,” while 40% said that “the human rights situation in China should not affect economic relations” between the two countries.[1a]

Another April 2005 Ipsos Reid poll offered two statements about possible US approaches to engagement with China in light of its human rights record. A majority of 58% chose the statement that “China still has a terrible record of human rights abuses and the United States should not reward them by expanding our diplomatic and trade relations,” while 38% chose the statement that “China has made a lot of progress in improving its human rights performance and the United States should be encouraging them to continue by expanding our diplomatic and trade relations.[1b]

A plurality also favors the Catholic Church putting pressure on China. An April 2005 Quinnipiac University Poll asked “Under the next pope, should the Catholic Church do more to combat repression in China or is the church's current position about right?” Forty-one percent said that it should do more, while 37% said what it was doing was about right and 22% did not know. [1c]

Between 2000 and 2005 there were remarkably few questions on this issue, perhaps because Congress has stopped revisiting the question of whether the US should impose sanctions. But there were quite a few in the late 1990s, showing views largely the same as today. For example, in four Time/CNN polls between 1996 and 1999, a majority said it wanted to "take a strong stand on human rights even if this might jeopardize our diplomatic and trade relations with China" rather than to "establish strong diplomatic and trade relations with China, even if this requires overlooking some of China's human rights violations" (57% to 28% in May 1999). [2]

In a June 1999 Pew poll, respondents were asked to choose between two arguments. A sizeable plurality (49%) said it was more important to "to take a firm stand with China against human rights abuses there, even if it increases tensions between the US (United States) and China"; 37% preferred to "cooperate with China in order to help maintain peace and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in Asia."[3]

In addition, three Gallup surveys asked simply whether the US should "take a strong stand on human rights in China [or] maintain good relations with China." In March 1999 and October 1997, majorities (51% and 59%) favored taking a strong stand. Most recently, in May 2000, a 54% majority preferred maintaining good relations, but it seems likely that the timing of this poll produced a one-time effect: it was taken as Congress was granting China permanent normal trade relations status. [4] (see footnotes for additional examples.)

In addition, pluralities or majorities have opposed granting China normal trade relations or most favored nation status, and a strong majority opposed eliminating the annual review of China's trade status (see "Past Controversies").

Advocates of trade with China have presented the argument that increasing trade with China will actually improve human rights there. This argument has produced a mixed response. Zogby asked if "increased trade between the US and China" is "an effective way to insure [sic] improvements in China's human rights policies," the public was sharply divided: 39% agreed but 43% disagreed. [5] In some Gallup surveys, a plurality or slim majority said "increased trade between the United States and China would mostly help" rather than hurt "human rights in China"(47% to 26% in May 2000). [6] But some Pew polls have found respondents quite skeptical that trade between China and the West "will lead to China becoming more democratic." In May 2000, just 32% thought it would, while 47% did not think so.[7]

Opposition to Punitive Stance or Cutting Back Trade

Among the many poll questions that address trade and human rights, there are a small number in which the majority has opposed limiting trade with China, or the public was divided. In each case the language of the poll question described such trade restrictions in punitive or confrontational terms, or described cutting back trade--rather than just limiting the growth of trade.

The strongest example was in a September 1999 Mark Penn survey. Asked "the best way to encourage change in China" only 29% endorsed the harshly worded "work with our allies to cut off trade with China to punish it for its crackdown on democracy." Rather, 65% chose the other option of "continuing to trade constructively and engage with China." [8]

The prospect of increasing pressure on China does not elicit majority support. When a May 1999 Newsweek survey asked about "the best way for the US to help bring more democracy, human rights, and economic reform to China," only 37% endorsed "imposing greater penalties on China and limits on US-China relations" (emphasis added). A slim majority (51%) chose instead the option of "continuing the current policy of commercial dealings and other engagement." [9]

When asked in a January 1999 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll how best to respond to China's "arresting and detaining dissidents and human-rights advocates," the public was divided between "taking public actions such as cutting back on economic ties," (42%) and "using quiet diplomacy" (41%). [10]

It appears that the majority wishing to limit trade for human rights reasons includes some who simply want to take a moral stand, along with some who want to actively pressure China. There is little sign, however, of strong majority support for taking a confrontational approach. Both Gallup and Fox News polls in June 1998 found that a plurality to slim majority did not think that when Clinton visited China he should "criticize" Chinese policy "publicly"; though an NBC News poll taken during that time found a plurality saying he should "meet with dissidents and publicly criticize China's human rights policy." [11] Data from the early 1990's confirm that the public has long been divided when taking a stand is phrased as "criticizing" China. [12] Similarly, Pew poll results from 1999 and 2000 showed the public virtually evenly split as to whether President Clinton was being "tough enough" with China. [13] A March 1999 CNN/USA Today poll found the public evenly divided between those who said that the Clinton administration was acting appropriately by being committed to "maintaining a constructive working relationship with China" and those who said that it had "gone too far in trying to maintain this kind of relationship with China."[14]

With regard to the "status of Tibet," an October 1997 Gallup poll found that a plurality preferred to "maintain good relations with China" rather than to "take a strong stand" (44% to 37%, with 19% not sure). [15] However, in an October 1997 Gallup poll, 51% said it is more important to take a strong stand on "the Chinese government's treatment of Christians in China" than to maintain good relations (42%). [16]

Promoting Democracy in China

Americans are skeptical about the quality of democracy in China, and pessimistic about whether China will become a real democracy in the near future. A majority favors some methods for putting pressure on China to become more democratic but shies away from some more assertive methods.

Americans’ assessment of democracy in China is quite dismal. Asked by WorldPublicOpinion.org to rate the quality of democracy of certain governments on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning “not at all democratic” and 10 meaning “completely democratic,” China rated a 2.16 on average in April 2006. When asked by PIPA/CCFR in September 2005, China received an average rating of only 1.89, just slightly higher than Iran (1.68) and slightly lower than Saudi Arabia (1.94). [17]

Americans are also not optimistic that this situation will change in the near future. Only 23% agreed that in April 2005 with the statement that “China will soon be a true democracy”; while 71% disagreed (Canada Institute and Woodrow Wilson International Center). [17a]

Americans favor a number of methods for promoting democracy in China. In a September 2005 PIPA/CCFR poll respondents were asked to rate five options for encouraging greater democracy in China. The option viewed most positively was to “put diplomatic pressure on the government to respect human rights, speak out against human rights abuses, and encourage other countries to do the same,” with a majority of 69% (30% favor strongly) viewing it favorably. However when the same question was asked doing the same for democracy support was much lower. Only 48% said the US should about “Put diplomatic pressure on the government to become more democratic, speak out against its lack of democracy, and encourage other countries to do the same.”

Another popular method, supported by 58%, was to bring students, journalists and political leaders to the US to educate them on how democracy works.

Support was more modest for economic sanctions and almost nonexistent for threatening military force. A bare majority of 51% favored pressuring the government with some economic sanctions such as reduced trade with the US. 15% supported warning the government that “the US might intervene militarily if it does not carry out some democratic reforms.” [18]

In a separate question, support was also quite low for supporting the pro-democracy movement in China. Presented two statements, a clear majority (55%) said that "the pro-democracy movement in China…is an internal Chinese matter and the United States should stay out of it." Just 35% said the US should support the pro-democracy movement in China. This is nearly unchanged from when ABC News asked this question in June 1998. [19]



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China - August 2008 (PDF)