Amid pandemic and election, US view of China tumbles to all-time low

Washington (AFP) –


As thousands of Americans die from the new coronavirus, both President Donald Trump and his challenger Joe Biden are attacking China. One reason behind their strategy -- China has never been more disliked by the US public.

A study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of China, the most negative finding on record and the culmination of a steady worsening since Trump took office in 2017.

"Essentially, within the last couple of years, we've seen a dramatic shift towards the negative," said Laura Miller, one of the authors of the study.

Trump, whose own handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has faced wide criticism, and hawkish members of his Republican Party have for weeks cast China as the culprit of the illness first detected in Wuhan that has killed more than 42,000 people in the United States.

In a stark sign of how negative the November election may be, the Trump campaign has already put out a commercial that aims to link presumptive Democratic nominee Biden to China, which silenced early news of COVID-19.

Set to footage of the former vice president's diplomacy with Chinese leaders, the online ad says Biden "protected China's feelings" and suggests without evidence that he was corrupted by his troubled son Hunter's business interests.

Biden hit back with an ad of his own that quotes Trump's own initial praise of China's pandemic efforts and says he left the United States "unprepared and unprotected."

China was already under fire on numerous fronts. US businesses, once cheerleaders for a strong relationship, have grown disgruntled over alleged intellectual property theft and other trade issues.

Most Democrats voiced rare agreement with Trump as he slapped tariffs on billion of dollars of Chinese products.

And ahead of congressional elections in 2018, Republicans -- mindful of allegations of Russian help to Trump -- went on an unusually forceful offensive that accused China of interference by taking out newspaper advertisements.

- Concerns across spectrum -

The Pew survey found negative sentiment toward China spanning the US spectrum -- with even a majority of young Americans for the first time seeing the Asian power unfavorably.

But the issues have shifted. US job losses to China and the US deficit, seen in 2012 as major concerns, have slipped in significance.

Instead, majorities of Americans now say that China's impact on the environment, its human rights record and cyberattacks are "very serious" problems for the United States.

"People see China as more of a threat, and that can take on a number of different dimensions," said Miller, a senior researcher at Pew.

Pew interviewed 1,000 people by telephone from March 3-29 and did not detect movement during that timeframe as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

But Miller said that negativity toward China would probably keep rising if the public narrative does not change.

"One thing that we often do during elections in the United States is we use international whipping boys. And so if China becomes that, we might expect to see negative views tick up," she said.

"If it doesn't, I'm not necessarily confident that these would continue in this direction."

- 'Tailor-made for opportunists' -

It is not only Trump who sees an interest in confrontation. Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited the pandemic to promote an authoritarian model that casts doubt on the efficacy of democracy.

"This crisis is kind of tailor-made for political opportunists and fearmongers on both sides," said Michael Swaine, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both Biden and Trump are taking Beijing to task, but Swaine expected the two men would take different approaches in the White House.

Biden's advisers may be more pragmatic, seeing areas for engagement when possible, while a second Trump administration could empower hawks who seek a full-on decoupling with China, Swaine said.

Despite the frequent friction between Washington and Beijing, the American public had until now been largely sanguine in its feelings about China.

"I was saying until quite recently that the American public has acted as a kind of a ballast in the demonization efforts of the Republicans and the Trump administration," Swaine said.

"I think that looks like it may be beginning to change, although how much it changes, to what degree and how sustained it is, I think we still really don't know."