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Poll: Americans sour on China amid pandemic, broader rivalry

Americans are increasingly hostile toward China as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the U.S. and global economies and after three years of Trump administration antagonism toward the country, according to a nationwide poll.

The poll, conducted last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, found that two-thirds of those surveyed, or 66 percent, had an unfavorable view of China. That’s the most since the center first asked the question 15 years ago and a significant jump of 20 percentage points since President Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017. The results suggest that Americans are receptive to the Trump administration’s broad antagonism toward China, which has increased in recent weeks over criticism of Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The poll suggests the change is so far not directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak, that the Trump administration’s trade war with China and relentless criticism of its policies may be having that effect. The upward trend in negative views began in 2019, and the survey did not find changing attitudes toward China over the course of March, when the virus outbreak was rapidly progressing.

“Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his approach to U.S.-China relations has included increased pressure via tariffs and trade war rhetoric, and now, with the onset of an unprecedented pandemic, the stage has been set for both sides to cast aspersions on the other,” the authors said. “Against this backdrop, negative views of China have continued to grow.”

The poll of 1,000 Americans found unfavorable opinions of China are shared across party lines, with about 70 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 60 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents holding them. In addition, the poll showed that about 90 percent of those surveyed see growing Chinese power and influence as a threat.

At the same time, with both the U.S. and Chinese economies reeling from the pandemic, the poll found Americans recognize that the United States is the world’s leading economic power and the world’s leading military power. A significant majority, 91 percent, believe that the world is better off with American rather than Chinese leadership.

The survey also found that about 90 percent of Americans see growing Chinese influence and power as a threat, with 62 percent of those saying it is a “major threat.” And, while the total seeing China as a threat has not changed since 2018, the percentage viewing China as a “major threat” has jumped 14 percentage points in the past two years, according to the results.

The poll was conducted throughout March when the impact of the virus pandemic was beginning to be recognized around the world, with countries shutting down their borders, issuing stay-at-home orders and closing off vast sections of their economies. However, the findings do not suggest that Americans’ opinions of China worsened as the month went on, with the negative views expressed early in the month matching those later in the month, according to the authors.

“While China’s handling of the virus may have made an impression on some Americans, it does not appear that escalating conditions in the U.S. over the course of March shifted attitudes toward China during that period,” they said.

What may have directly contributed to the increase in negative views has been the administration’s criticism of China on human rights issues, including the persecution of religious minorities, and its well-publicized campaign against cyber-security threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party. And, although the administration has not made climate change a significant domestic priority, the poll found that many Americans see China as having a profoundly negative impact on the world’s environment.

At least 61 percent of those surveyed identified China’s environmental policies as being a very serious concern for the U.S., up 10 percentage points since 2018, according to the findings. And 57 percent percent see both cyberattacks from China and China’s human rights policies as a serious threat.

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