WPO Home | A&W Home | About Americans & the World | Search | Join our ListServ | Contact Us

Regional Issues >> China


Spy Plane Incident

On April 1, 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter while gathering intelligence off the Chinese mainland. The US plane landed on a Chinese island, where the US crew was detained for eleven days. Overall, the American public's response to the incident was fairly measured and calm. While the majority of Americans felt that the US was not to blame for the incident because the plane was in international airspace, only a minority pinned the blame on China. The percentage having a negative view of China went up in some polls but not others. Most did not see the incident as inflicting long-term damage on the US China relationship. After the incident there was not majority support for punishing China such as by opposing China's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. While the majority supported resuming surveillance flights, most put a higher priority on patching up relations with China than getting the plane back.

Majority Said US Not to Blame But Neither is China

In an April 4-5 CBS poll, 58% agreed with the US position that "the spy plane was well within its rights, because it was in international air space"; just 26% thought the spy plane "may have done something wrong [and] invaded Chinese airspace" as the Chinese assert.[1]

Consistent with this view, both polls found that more Americans did not think the US should apologize to China in order to secure release of the troops being held (54% to 40% in the ABC poll, 49% to 41% in the CBS survey, 54% to 41% in a Gallup poll conducted April 6-8).[2] In the ABC survey, 61% also rejected the idea of the US agreeing "to reduce the use of American spy planes to intercept Chinese communications."

However, Americans were also not inclined to blame China for the incident. In an April 5 ABC poll, only 25% blamed China, while a plurality (46%) felt that the incident "was just an accident and no one's fault," and 18% more thought both sides were to blame. Just 5% blamed the US.[3]

At the same time, if China had refused to release the crew and plane, a strong majority would have been ready to take punitive action. The ABC survey did find that 74% thought the US should "move to restrict US trade with China if the crew and the plane are not returned."

The public shows a marked reluctance to view either the US or China as a "winner" from the incident. CNN/USA Today (April 20-22) pushed respondents to pick one country or the other: "All in all, who would you say was the winner from this situation?" Forty-eight percent named the US, 24% said China, and 28% refused to pick ("neither," 16%; "both," 8%; no opinion, 4%). CBS (April 26) offered respondents the option of saying neither country won; an overwhelming 73% said this was the case (US, 9%; China, 11%).[4]

Little Change In View of China and US-China Relationship

In polls that were taken both during and after the period that the airmen were being held, some polls found a modest negative movement in the perception of China, relative to polls taken before the incident, but others even found a positive movement. Taken together, there is no indication of a significant negative change in the public's view of China.

For example, several polls which asked respondents whether they viewed China as an enemy, unfriendly, friendly or an ally showed a wide range of responses, similar to the range of responses over the last few years. While some have called attention to the April 20-22 CNN/USA Today poll that found an exceptionally high 69% saying that China is unfriendly (44%) or an enemy (25%), when CBS polled on April 23-25, it found an exceptionally low 44% saying China is unfriendly (34%) or an enemy (11%). Looking at all the available numbers in the context of a history of unstable responses to this question, there is no clear evidence that there has been any basic change in attitudes toward China.[5]

The majority also responded fairly calmly in terms of the effect of the incident on US- China relations. During the crisis a significant number expressed alarm, but this was not a majority. On April 4-5, in the midst of the crisis, ABC/Washington Post found that while 83% felt the incident was a "cause for concern," just 41% considered it to be a "cause for alarm." Less than half (48%) thought the incident posed a "serious threat" to US-China relations. At the moment when the airmen were on their way home, only 22% expected long-term damage to US-China relations, while a 51% majority thought the incident would "result in only short-term damage" to relations, and another 21% thought it would cause no damage at all (Newsweek, April 12-13).[6]

Majority Rejects Idea of "Punishing" China

When polled after the return of US airmen, the public showed little propensity to punish China--whether by opposing its entry into the World Trade Organization, canceling the president's fall summit with China's leader, opposing China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, or to simply avoid buying goods from China.

When asked whether the US should "demonstrate its unhappiness with China for its actions" by opposing China's membership in the WTO, only 36% thought the US should, while 42% thought it should not (Fox, April 18-19). When offered the alternative of actually supporting China's membership, 54% thought the US should do so, while only 31% thought the US should oppose it (Newsweek, April 12-13). Public support for China's entry into the WTO has always been confined to a modest majority, at best, and the most recent result is similar to others in the past [see Trade with China].[7]

Only a small minority--18%--thought "it would be a good step and send an important signal" to "cancel…Bush's summit with Chinese leaders this fall." Two out of three (67%) said that canceling the summit "would be unwise and would go too far" (NBC/Wall Street Journal, April 21-23).[8]

Only a minority supported having the US oppose China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a way of punishing China. Asked in an April 18-19 Fox poll, "Do you think the United States should demonstrate its unhappiness with China for its actions by opposing China's bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008?" only 39% said that it should. An April 12 Newsweek poll 50% even said that the US should support China's bid, with just 35% saying that is should oppose it. Given the option to just stay neutral, a 54% majority preferred that course (ABC/Washington Post, April 19-22).[9]

Finally, only about a third (34%) told CNN/USA Today that "this incident" made them "less likely to buy goods manufactured or produced in China." Sixty-four percent said the incident would have no effect on their consumer choices (April 20-22). [10]

Support for Resuming Surveillance Flights; Return of Plane a Low Priority

A strong majority supported resuming military surveillance flights and continuing them as before. Sixty-nine percent wanted to continue the flights in a Newsweek poll (April 12-13), while 23% thought they should be reduced (13%) or ended (10%). However, a majority showed little interest in getting the damaged surveillance plane back once American personnel had been released. Fifty-nine percent thought "maintaining US-Chinese relations is more important, even if it means the US does not get back the plane," while 37% thought the opposite (CNN/USA Today, April 20-22). [11]

Approval of President's Performance

Throughout, the public showed solid support for Bush's handling of the incident. In the ABC survey, by 64% to 24%, respondents approved Bush's "handling of the situation"; using nearly the same wording, Gallup found 61% approval. Sixty-two percent said the administration's stance was "about right" as opposed to "too tough" (6%) or "not tough enough" (23%). In the CBS poll, 49% approved of Bush's "handling of relations with China" (28% disapproved). At the time of the airmen's release, 69% approved of "the way…Bush handled this situation"; only 23% disapproved (Newsweek). Once the airmen were home, Fox found 67% thought "Bush's actions" were "just about right"; 20% called him "too soft on China" ("too tough": 4%). Newsweek asked whether "the Chinese government would have released the American crew much earlier if the Bush administration had expressed regrets about the incident to the Chinese soon after the plane went down," and got an evenly divided response-44% yes, 45% no. However, even those who said that this might have resulted in a more expeditious release of the crew may not have favored doing so. [12]



Report Contents

Recent Data Updates
China - August 2008 (PDF)