• Andrew Johnston

A Crisis of Harmony: One Month Out

Watch the video version of this post:

It's been about a month since I finished editing A Crisis of Harmony and around three weeks since releasing it. Those of you who've seen it (and if you haven't, then what are you waiting for?) will recall that I ended it with skepticism that Sino-American relations would improve - skepticism not shared by my interview subjects.

Sometimes you're not happy to be right.

Recent polling by Gallup and Pew suggests that not only have American opinions of China not improved since last year, they've actually gotten much worse. Gallup's polling shows that just 20% of Americans have a remotely favorable opinion of the PRC, the lowest they've ever recorded. This is comparable to the American opinion on Russia, and just a few points ahead of Iran.

But it's the more detailed Pew poll that's most interesting here. I encourage you to read the entire thing - it's long but fascinating - but here are some of my personal takeaways, the bits I'm still chewing over myself:

1. A majority of Americans now favor limiting Chinese students

This was the most horrifying finding for me. This was one of Mike Pompeo's ideas - I mentioned it in A Crisis of Harmony to show just radical he truly was. I never expected a majority of Americans would agree with him. I don't know why Americans think this is wise - if, like Pompeo, they fear that Chinese people are spies, or if it's driven by simple xenophobia or vindictiveness - and in a sense it doesn't matter. One would think that in a country allegedly sensitive to its history, one would avoid advocating for anything that recalls the Chinese Exclusion Act.

As you'd expect, there are demographic distinctions. Republicans agree more than Democrats, though nearly half of Democrats are still on board. The biggest gap is in age. Support falls to a third among Americans under 30 - the group most likely to have interacted with those students. That says something, I think.

And speaking of demographics...

2. White Americans have far more negative opinions than other ethnic groups

This is most pronounced where Pew asks people if they view China as an enemy. or just a competitor.

As you can see, Whites are twice as likely as Hispanics and more than three times as likely as Blacks to say "enemy." But it's not just here - Whites also have a significantly lower opinion of China in general, are more likely to support an ongoing trade war, are a lot less likely to trust President Biden on China-related issues, and even have lower opinions of Xi Jinping.

I really don't know what to make of this just yet. Without the crosstabs, I can't see how politics lines up with this - it is possible that this is largely explained by relative party affiliation. If that's not the case, then I don't have an answer, except that whatever the answer may be is probably bad.

On the other hand...

3. Education doesn't matter as much as you might think

While party affiliation, age and race were all significant factors in determining opinion, education isn't nearly as significant, at least not on certain issues. College graduates are at least less likely than non-graduates to view Chinese students as a threat, but they're only marginally less likely to call China an enemy, and their opinions on the trade war are nearly identical.

If you were prepared to chalk these differences up to simple ignorance, then you might want to think again.

But if you wanted some good news (or at least something that can be interpreted as good news by certain members of the elite press,) then there's this...

4. The right and the left are united over anti-China sentiment

There is one issue where rightists and leftists are closer to each other than they are to the center, and it's on prioritizing human rights.

Of particular significant here is the exact wording of the statement to which these people are agreeing: "The U.S. should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations with China." This is quite a commitment, and it will be interesting to see how consistent these people remain given that any non-military intervention is going to entail ceding some economic ground.

One example of this would have been the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which - had the U.S. remained a signatory - would have been a big step toward containing China. But while there was general approval among Americans for the TPP, it was less so on the fringes, with opposition among "populist" figures as far afield as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. One wonders if the people surveyed in this poll would now approve of joining the TPP. I've heard some people say that this will be one of the big challenges to the Biden Administration: Finding a way to satisfy people's desires to be "tough on China" while not making any trade deals that would be perceived as anti-worker.


This was something I expected, but not necessarily like this. Given the increasing public pressure for Biden to be "tough on China" (with the same poll showing that many people are skeptical about Biden's ability to handle China), this bodes poorly for future relations between the two countries. Most likely, this means that the bad times for Asian-Americans are likely to continue as well - people seen as foreign tend to suffer the most in times like this.

Unfortunately, things may even get worse if politicians opt to use fear of China to rally voters. There are plenty of choices for the American enemy of the moment right now, but the PRC is the one that seems to animate everyone. If I was skeptical about the future before, now I'm just worried.

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