Introduction and Summary

The public is deeply divided about the future of U.S.-China relations. Although a solid 60% majority say relations between the United States and China are stable — neither improving nor getting worse — there is little agreement over the question of whether our current handling of China is tough enough and no single policy stance gets majority support.

Today, 44% of the American people say the Clinton administration has not been tough enough in its dealings with China and 43% say the administration struck the right balance. Just 2% say the U.S. has been too tough.

Similarly, no consensus exists on the question of whether the U.S. should cooperate with China to help maintain peace and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in Asia or take a firm stand against human rights abuses there, even if it increases tensions between the two countries. Today, 45% of the public chooses cooperation; 44% opt for a firm stand.

Again, agreement fails to emerge when the public is asked to balance trade and military security. Given the choice, 47% of Americans say containing China’s military power is more important; 42% say maintaining China as a trading partner is more important.

Those most attentive to accusations that China stole nuclear technology from the United States, white evangelical Christians, and Republicans take a tougher position on China than the average American. For instance, of the 19% who followed news about the accusations against China very closely, over two-thirds say the Clinton administration has not been tough enough with China, compared to less than half of the general public who agree. In addition, a 55% majority of white evangelical Protestants say the United States should contain China’s growth as a military power — eight percentage points above the average.

Opinion More Negative

American public opinion toward China has grown slightly more negative since President Clinton visited the Asian nation last summer. As Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji tours the U.S. this week, increasing numbers of Americans express skepticism about China’s resolve on free markets, democracy and diplomacy.

Less than one-quarter (23%) of Americans now say China is becoming more democratic and allowing its people more freedom; 65% feel just the opposite is true. This is a return to the 26%-64% split in 1997 and marks a significant change from August 1998, when 35% of Americans thought the Asian nation was becoming more open and 51% disagreed.

Similar movement can be seen on the issue of free markets, although the public is not quite so adamant in their view of China’s resistance of economic reforms. Today, 34% say the Chinese economy is becoming more like the U.S. economy; 47% disagree. In August 1998, Americans were more evenly divided: 41% felt the Chinese economy was becoming more open, 44% disagreed.

Although a 48% plurality of the public continues to see China as a serious problem — a number basically unchanged since September 1997, when 46% of the public felt this way — many Americans are becoming increasingly critical in their view of China. More Americans now describe China as an “adversary” (up to 20% from 14% in 1997) and fewer dismiss China as “not much of a problem” (down to 25% from 32%). Moreover, two-thirds of the public considers allegations that China stole nuclear technology from the United States to be very serious.1

Low Priority Given China

Americans’ ambivalence about China may be due, in part, to the relatively low priority they give to the nation. A slim majority (52%) say that keeping a close watch on the development of China as a world power should be a top priority for the U.S. government. This is considerably lower than the number who place a premium on reducing the threat of international terrorism (75%), stopping international drug trafficking (72%) and halting the spread of AIDS (65%).

That said, however, concern about China ranks above that of other Asian nations. Only 38% of the public rates managing trade and economic disputes with Japan a top priority; even fewer (29%) say that countering the threat of militarism in North Korea should be a top priority.