In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tumultuous relationship between the United States and China has intensified. The American government’s actions, as well as the general public’s sentiments toward China have drastically changed since the virus was first reported in Wuhan in late 2019.
Barnard College’s Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science Xiaobo Lü, an expert on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations, has agreed to share insights into this evolving relationship. Lü is the founder of the Columbia Global Center in Beijing, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a recipient of Barnard’s Emily Gregory Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has taught classes on the politics of economic development at major international research institutions, including Tsinghua University in Beijing, the City University of Hong Kong, and University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.
In this Break This Down interview, Lü offers a brief history of the political relationship between these two countries, explains exactly how American public attitudes toward China have shifted during the current pandemic, and outlines the best way to move forward.
In what ways has COVID-19 impacted U.S.-China relations?
U.S.-China relations have been in a downward spiral since 2017, when the two countries began to engage in a trade war. Late last year , they reached the Phase One trade agreement and signed it in mid-January. Then came the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which couldn’t have come at a worse time. Having started in China, but later affecting the U.S. more severely, the pandemic should have produced more cooperation and mutual trust for the two largest economies in the world to join hands in fighting this nasty enemy. Unfortunately, things turned worse than before for the bilateral relations.
Conspiracy theories on both sides, which represented only the extreme views of a handful of people, gained currency and further poisoned the already fragile relationship. Blaming others for the problems at home has become a hallmark of right-wing populism, which has risen as a backlash against the globalization of the U.S. economy and added to the deterioration of the relationship. More recent actions by President Trump and his administration indicate that the U.S. is placing more blame on China and the World Health Organization [WHO] for the pandemic. This will only make matters worse for the bilateral relations, and unfortunately, neither side has made concrete efforts to improve the relationship.
How has COVID-19 shifted the nation’s perceptions of the U.S. as a global economic leader compared to China?
The pandemic has indeed changed the perception of the United States for many Chinese people. The comparison stems from how each country responded to the pandemic and how effective these measures were. Many Chinese people were scared and pessimistic when the outbreak first took place in January, as the Chinese government adopted draconian measures to lock down entire residential areas, cities, and provinces. People were skeptical of the government because many saw the measures as a belated response to contain the outbreak. But when Europe and the U.S. began to experience outbreaks, China was beginning to flatten the curve. In the past two months, many Chinese people have watched the pandemic in the U.S. worsen, as the number of cases and deaths have escalated.
The initial lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the U.S. and the inability of a nationally coordinated effort to procure them exposed, in the eyes of many Chinese people, the weakness in the economic and governing structures of the U.S. In other words, the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 made many Chinese people more confident in their own economic and governing systems than they otherwise would have been. In fact, Chinese people would have been more distrustful and resentful toward their own government had it not been for the Trump administration’s poor response to the pandemic.
What role has President Trump’s rhetoric toward Chinese leadership played in shaping American attitudes toward China?
President Trump’s rhetoric toward China has not always been the same, even throughout the pandemic. From January to early March, the president downplayed the threat of the virus and praised China for making efforts to contain it. Trump did not want to cause fear and panic in the U.S. He halted travel from China and may have believed this action would stop the virus from coming into the country. When the virus entered through the East Coast from Europe, the outbreak became out of control.
For a while, President Trump’s focus was on containing COVID-19 at home, and he did not mention China in his press briefings. But, as some right-wing conspiracists in the U.S. began to spread theories of a Wuhan lab either producing or leaking the virus, and some in China began to spread a conspiracy theory of U.S. military personnel in Wuhan in October 2019 bringing the virus to China, the president began to use the term “Chinese virus” in several of his daily press briefings. What the president says and tweets influences how Americans view the world, even as partisan politics have divided the country on almost all domestic affairs.
The president of the United States generally plays a more unifying role on foreign policy than he does on domestic affairs, which tend to be more divided, and Americans rely on the president to be the diplomat-in-chief. Since taking office in 2017, Donald Trump has taken a much more confrontational posture toward China compared to previous American presidents, over trade and economic issues. His protectionist rhetoric, which often targets China, has gained the sympathetic ears of Americans who feel they are victims of globalization and unfair trade with China. Still, what makes Trump different from his predecessors on foreign policies is that he tends to listen to his own advice and play his own spokesman through platforms like Twitter. The result is a lack of consistency and predictability in both policies and messaging.
It is also noteworthy that among all U.S. foreign relations, policies toward China tend to garner bipartisan support, especially for tougher trade policies, among politicians and the general public. When it comes to China, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are not as significant as they are on other foreign policy matters. Being tough on China has long been a safe political move; Trump is very well aware of that. In fact, as the presidential election approaches later this year, one can predict that he will appear increasingly tough on China. China is already in his reelection playbook, as we see now in his attacks on China in response to COVID-19. One does not see any changes for the better when it comes to how the American public views China and U.S.-China relations.
This recent Pew report found that public views on China are negative and divided by partisan lines. Why is that?
This was both unsurprising and worrying. When the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations in 1979 and China began to launch post-Mao reforms, American public opinion of China was at its most positive in the early 1980s. Faced with a common enemy in the Soviet Union and Communist China changing its metaphorical colors, nearly 80% of Americans had positive opinions of China, according to some surveys at the time.
Things began to turn around in the wake of Beijing’s 1989 crackdown. Republicans and Democrats began to view China as being ruled by an unchanged authoritarian regime that was fundamentally different from that of the U.S. Positive American public views of China declined to less than 50%. Since then, it has gone up and down over the past three decades but has always hovered around 40-50%. It seems that American opinions on China always depend on two constant factors: how China is perceived as an ideologically different regime and how China is perceived as an economic power.
Then there is a contingent factor of whether there are counterbalancing events that can reduce the concerns of Americans over China at a given time. Such events have included the North Korean nuclear armament, as well as the rise of international terrorism, both of which have been perceived as more urgent and serious than China. But fundamentally, as China emerges as a superpower with an economy that rivals that of the U.S. in size, and with a different political system, the American public is concerned and worried about China. The latest Pew survey reflects the convolution of all three factors. While other more urgent threats have faded, however temporarily, how to deal with China once again becomes a more pressing problem. China remains unchanged politically, while economically and militarily it has become more powerful. So it is not surprising that we are now seeing some of the most negative American public opinions on China in the past four decades.
But the deterioration of the US-China relations and the public views of each other on both sides is also a very worrisome development for the post-pandemic era, as there are more needs for the U.S. and China to increase cooperation and trust in dealing with the global economy and maintaining a peaceful world order. Even though public opinions are influenced by events and the policies of national leadership, they can also have a great impact on the leadership’s policy choices. Public opinions in the U.S. and China can facilitate rather than stunt the slide on a dangerous slope of a new cold war between the two countries.
What connections do you see between the increase in negative attitudes toward China and the increase in discrimination and hate crimes against Asian communities in the U.S.?
Bias and blaming others tend to happen when a society is facing a crisis or difficult times. History is full of examples of collateral damages in one’s own domestic society when the country is in conflict with other countries.
The month of May is designated as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), which celebrates the cultural heritage and contributions that Asians made to this country. Asian Americans, like all Americans, have been very active and devoted to the fight against COVID-19. This does not mean, however, that negative views on China would not spill over to Asian Americans, especially when the relationship between the two countries is now at its lowest point in decades.
Furthermore, as our national discourse becomes increasingly populist and tribal, some people have begun to blame marginalized populations, like immigrants, for the perceived loss of American greatness and exceptionalism. There is always danger in linking immigrants and whole ethnic groups with their ancestral land, without any deep understanding of these communities or their countries of ancestry. We must always be vigilant, during the pandemic and beyond, against such bias, intolerance, and discrimination.
What actionable steps can both governments take to help improve relations?
Despite the overwhelmingly gloomy assessment of the state of current relations and pessimistic predictions that a new cold war is brewing, there are signs and hopes that both sides can see the needs for cooperation and engagement. During the trade conflicts in the past two years, and particularly in the current pandemic, the global supply chain that has formed over the decades of globalization has revealed a hard truth — the U.S. and China both need each other for critical supply production, ranging from high-tech components to basic drug ingredients. Changing the existing supply chains would require both time and intervention on the part of the U.S. government, as well as market forces, which cannot be done in a short time. Both governments realize there are no tools in the toolbox for trade and economic conflicts that can be used without hurting themselves. The so-called decoupling — divestment from depending on the other economically — pushed by hardliners on both sides is a lose-lose proposition that will hurt both countries. It takes two to tango.
Chinese public opinion of the U.S. has also become increasingly negative as time progresses. There are many Chinese people who had hoped that Trump’s victory in 2016 would represent a shift from Obama’s, hence Clinton’s, emphasis on liberal concerns about human rights in China to a more Nixonian realism toward China. Their hope was dashed as soon as the trade war started, and Trump is now widely regarded as an unreliable leader who is more hawkish on China than his predecessors. More radically negative views, including conspiracy theories, have been gaining ground in China, similarly to the U.S. It is this kind of radical development that should worry those of us who want to avoid a new cold war between the U.S. and China.
So the challenge for leaders and elites, in both countries, is to rein in the impulse to make policies that would inevitably damage our own interests and, instead, find the common ground we need for cooperation in the short term.
— SOLBY LIM ’22
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