Anti-China sentiment is rising in the United States, according to a new poll that reflects the foreign country’s role as the point of origin of the coronavirus and the millions of dollars in negative ads spent by President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden and their allies as each paints the other as weak on the U.S.-China relationship.
Since January, the percentage of U.S. voters who say China is an “enemy” has risen 11 percentage points to 31 percent, while the percentage of voters who say China is either an ally or friend has fallen 9 points to a combined 23 percent, a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows. The 30 percent who say China is unfriendly but not an enemy has held about constant in the past five months.
For all the negativity, U.S. voters, by a 28-point margin, favor working with China to respond to the coronavirus instead of confronting the country aggressively.
“This is a trend to watch,” Tyler Sinclair, vice president at Morning Consult, said of the numbers.
The shifting poll numbers and the crush of negative, and sometimes misleading, advertising concerning China show the depth of its salience as a central issue in the presidential campaign. But unlike other matters in U.S. politics, the clash with a global superpower has worldwide ramifications that recall the hostilities of the Cold War and raise domestic political concerns about anti-Asian racism.
U.S. perceptions of China have periodically worsened and improved over the years. But sentiment toward the country grew markedly negative after 2017, according to polling from Pew Research that now shows two-thirds of Americans have a negative view of China and only a quarter have a positive one. The spread of the coronavirus during a presidential election year “was just an accelerant” that made the tensions more pronounced, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It has just caused the relationship to go into a virtual free fall and it’s hard to know where the bottom is. I don’t think we’ve hit it yet,” Glaser said. “The next six months is going to be a competition between the Republicans and Democrats over who can bash China harder, more effectively and show they can stand up for American interests better than the other guy.”
On TV alone, the two sides have spent and reserved about $6 million in ad time attacking both candidates over China, according to an analysis from Advertising Analytics. Factor in digital spending and millions more have been spent on ads featuring China in a negative light.
America First Action, a pro-Trump political committee, says it’s spending about $10 million attacking Biden over China in TV and digital ads in swing states like Pennsylvania. The pro-Biden American Bridge political committee reports dropping $2 million on a TV and digital ad campaign in swing states that played up Trump’s early comments about trusting China to contain the coronavirus. The liberal group Priorities USA has spent another $161,000 bashing Trump.
According to the Morning Consult poll, the two candidates are essentially tied on the question of who is trusted more to handle relations with China: 40 percent favored Biden and 38 percent favored Trump, a result well within the error margin.
Biden is under competing pressures to paint Trump as weak on China while remaining sensitive to Asian Americans who vote predominantly for Democrats. Progressive groups and activists that represent the interests of Asian Americans sounded the alarm in April over what they believed were racial overtones in an ad from the Democrat going after Trump.
After activists complained, the Biden campaign made sure to specify it was attacking the Chinese “government” in another web ad released earlier this month. The spot racked up 4.6 million views on Twitter, a high number for Biden. The Biden campaign also pointed out that he had criticized Trump for “hysterical xenophobia,” which the Trump campaign has flung back at Biden, claiming that the Democrat was criticizing the president’s travel restrictions to China. Biden disputes that characterization.
Grace Pai, a director at the Illinois-based group Asian American Midwest Progressives, said Biden’s China rhetoric remains concerning.
“The ad may use ‘Chinese government’ but the average American voter will still connect that to people that they perceive as Chinese on the street. We know that impacts many East Asians and Southeast Asians,” Pai said. “Our concerns remain. This China-bashing between the campaigns — we don’t think that is the right tactic, at least from the Biden campaign. I don’t expect it to change from the Trump campaign.”
Criticizing China on trade is a staple of Trump’s political career. As a businessman, Trump also had Chinese business partners and the Trump Organization and his older daughter, Ivanka, received patents from China during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump’s campaign sees China as a liability for Biden because of favorable statements he’s made about the country and because his son, Hunter Biden, had engaged in business in China while his father was vice president.
Biden is trusted more than Trump on containing the virus 42 percent to 35 percent and is seen as a better leader than Trump during a crisis by 44 percent to 38 percent, according to the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. But Trump, by a slight margin, is viewed as better on the economy.
Biden is viewed favorably by 44 percent and negatively by 48 percent of those polled. Trump is viewed favorable by 41 percent and unfavorably by 55 percent.
U.S. voters are deeply concerned with the coronavirus, and the poll shows 58 percent believe that the country should focus on working with China to combat the pandemic even if it means not holding China accountable for being where it orginated. Only 30 percent say the U.S. should focus on holding China accountable, even if it means not working with China to combat coronavirus.
Republicans are the most critical of China, with 55 percent saying the U.S. should hold China accountable even at the expense of cooperation on the coronavirus. Only 25 percent of independents and 12 percent of Democrats agree with this view.
The 31 percent of voters who see China as an enemy includes 47 percent of Republicans, 28 percent of independents and 20 percent of Democrats.
The stronger Republican antipathy toward China is also expressed on the question of vaccines, which Republicans also oppose more generally than Democrats or independents in the poll. When asked if they would get a coronavirus vaccine made in China, 31 percent of Republicans said they would not get vaccinated at all, compared with 20 percent of independents and 10 percent of Democrats.
But overall, voters expressed an interest in getting a China-made vaccine, albeit not quickly, with 17 percent saying they would be the first to get it, 32 percent saying they would be in the middle of the pack, 15 percent saying they would be last to get a vaccine and 19 percent saying no vaccine at all.
If the vaccine is made in the U.S., 28 percent of respondents in the poll said they’d get it first, 32 percent would be in the middle, 13 percent said they would get it last and 14 percent said they wouldn’t get it at all.
Amid the heightened tensions, China and the U.S. are competing to develop a vaccine, which concerns China experts like Glaser.
“We should be jointly developing a vaccine. Instead, that has become the latest arena of competition between the U.S. and China,” she said. “I don’t think this is in the interest of anyone. If we can’t work together on a pandemic, then I don’t think we can work together on anything.”
Morning Consult is a global data intelligence company, delivering insights on what people think in real time by surveying tens of thousands across the globe every single day.