According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2023, a large majority of American adults (83 percent) continue to have negative views of China, and the share who have very unfavorable views (44 percent) has increased by four percentage points since last year. Around four-in-ten Americans also now describe China as an enemy of the United States, rather than as a competitor or a partner – up 13 points since last year.
Americans are broadly concerned about China’s role in the world. For example, 62 percent of Americans see the China-Russia partnership as a very serious problem for the United States, up five points since October.
In an interview conducted on May 3, 2023, Laura Silver discusses the findings of the March 2023 survey.
STEPHEN A. ORLINS: I’m Steve Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. And I’m thrilled to be joined by who feels like a very old friend. This is this is I think that at least the third year where we’ve had Laura Silver present about her findings from a Pew poll on American attitudes towards China. I do note that since the last time we did this interview, you have been promoted to, now, associate director at Pew Research. You were previously senior researcher, so congratulations. I hope it is based upon how great these interviews are and that they thought they had to promote you. But congratulations.
LAURA SILVER: Basically that.
ORLINS: Laura will first go over kind of the top line results and then I’ll have some questions for her. But, Laura, take it away. Thank you.
SILVER: Well, thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk to you about the results of our survey. Per usual, we’ve done a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, and we’re looking specifically at views of China here. And what we find is that, broadly speaking, Americans continue to have quite a negative view of China. 83% of people say they have a negative view of China, compared to 14% to have a positive view. This is, on balance, quite similar to last year, but if anything, has turned slightly more negative.
Here, you can see the details underlying these findings. So a couple of patterns stand out. Generally, older people tend to be more negative towards China than younger people, and Republicans and especially conservative Republicans tend to be more negative than Democrats. But as you can see, given the amount of blue on this chart, the vast majority of Americans tend to have negative views of China across all of the demographic groups that we looked at.
ORLINS: While you have that one up there, do you have ethnicity as also something which you graph?
SILVER: We do. We didn’t graph it. We didn’t report it. We do tend to see some racial and ethnic differences. One of the reasons we’re not talking about it a lot here, and especially if the question is going to be about Asian-American views, is because Pew Research Center just did a 7500 [people] plus survey of Asian-Americans, the first report of which is about to go live next week. So stay tuned for that, super interesting findings.
But over the summer, we’ll be looking at Asian-American views of China as well as other countries, and we’ll be able to disaggregate Asian-Americans in a way we can’t do currently. So we didn’t think it was quite fair to look at Asian-Americans as a grouping when very soon we’ll be able to look at Chinese Americans versus Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, etc. So we’ll be releasing that over the summer.
ORLINS: Without stealing the Thunder, is it somewhat more favorable towards China than from the rest of Americans?
SILVER: It is somewhat more favorable, but it is not broadly favorable. So we’ll be releasing that this summer, and stay tuned, especially for this coming week’s report that’s going to be about identity issues among the Asian-American population. So really fascinating work coming forward.
ORLINS: We’ll do a program of when you have one on Chinese Americans views.
SILVER: Yeah. And the exciting part about that sample as well as that will not only be able to look at Chinese American views, but look at foreign-born versus U.S.-born Chinese as well as look at time in the country, so it’s just a much richer presentation than we can do with this sample, which still has around 3500 Americans, but when you go all the way down to Asian-Americans, the sample size is much more limited.
This survey, we also asked a question that we’ve now asked four times about whether or not China is an enemy, a competitor, or a partner. And you can see that 30% of Americans think that China is an enemy, compared to 52% who say it’s a competitor and 6% who say it’s a partner.
Generally, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to call China an enemy, and the share who call China an enemy across the entire population, but also among Republicans and Democrats respectively, has gone up since last year, returning kind of to the levels that we saw in January of 2022 and February of 2021.
We saw a slight dip, we think, last year in terms of the share who describe China as an enemy, in part because the share who described Russia as an enemy skyrocketed with the invasion of Ukraine. And there was a little bit of an order effect and what Americans thought about when they thought about what it meant to be an enemy of the U.S. was different in the context of the war. That said, the partnership between China and Russia is actually of great concern to Americans, and 62% of Americans say that that partnership is a very serious problem for the U.S., more than, say, the same of the other issues we asked about. This is up since last October. And back to kind of the levels that we saw when Russia first invaded Ukraine.
We also see that there are concerns about the tensions between China and Taiwan. Around half of Americans describe this to be a very serious problem, and the same is true for China’s policies on human rights. [Americans are] slightly less concerned about China’s military power, its growing technological power, or economic competition.
And just to show you the share of people who describe China and Taiwan tensions as a very serious problem for the U.S., you can see that it’s been roughly ascending since we started asking this question on the American Trends Panel. That October date obviously follows Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The most recent date was roughly around the time of Tsai Ing-wen transiting the United States.
This year, we also asked a couple of questions about China’s global role. We asked whether or not it contributes to peace and stability around the world, whether or not it takes into account the interests of countries like the U.S. and whether it interferes in affairs of other countries. And you can see that, generally speaking, Americans are critical of China’s role in the world. They don’t see it contributing to peace and stability very much or at all. They don’t think it takes into account the interests of countries like the U.S., and generally they see it as an interventionist power interfering in the affairs of other countries.
A new set of questions we asked this year, though, kind of what Americans think the U.S. and China can cooperate on, which hopefully is of interest to this audience, in particular. We asked about a couple of different domains where there are some discussions about US-China collaboration, including resolving international conflicts, climate change policy, dealing with the spread of infectious disease, trade and economic policy, and student exchange programs. And you can see for the first three, resolving international conflicts, climate change policy, or dealing with the spread of infectious disease, on balance, Americans think the U.S. and China cannot cooperate on those issues. The opposite is true when it comes to trade and economic policy, and especially student exchange programs, which around two-thirds of Americans see the possibility of cooperation for.
This does differ somewhat by party. In general, Democrats tend to be much more likely to say that the U.S. and China either likely or definitely can cooperate than do Republicans, and that’s across all of the issues that we asked about.
So there’s a lot more on this survey, but I will stop the formal presentation and get to your questions.
ORLINS: That’s terrific. And just put in the chat the way people can access the poll, which is www.pewresearch.org, right?
SILVER: Yep, that is right. And I can put the more specific link as well.
ORLINS: Right. You know, I was not surprised by the poll results. Was there anything in there that particularly surprised you?
SILVER: You know, I was particularly interested in these cooperation questions. They’re ones that we haven’t asked before. And they were questions that we’d been getting a lot from different audiences we spoke to. People kept saying, well, if everything’s so negative, is there anything Americans think that we can work with China on? And the answer is, specific things, but a lot of things that you might consider relatively innocuous perhaps were important for global cooperation, like climate change and scientific collaboration, Americans broadly think that the two countries cannot cooperate on this. So, I was particularly struck by those findings.
ORLINS: Yeah, it was it was pretty disappointing—from my point of view, pretty disappointing. So, I mean, this is pretty consistent with other polls. I assume that the Republican and Democratic parties are doing similar polls. What do you think is the message that presidential and congressional candidates should take from this poll?
SILVER: Well, one thing that I think people looking at this poll can glean is that people on both sides of the aisle tend to see China negatively and tend to see a lot of problems in the bilateral relationship. That said, these cooperation measures do point to the fact that Democrats are more open to collaboration than are Republicans.
There are also a couple of key issues that I think are particularly of note. So Republicans tend to be more critical, particularly conservative Republicans, of China on almost every measure in the survey, the notable exception being questions of human rights. When it comes to issues of human rights and the importance of that in terms of how America approaches China, or on this question of whether or not China’s human rights policies are a very serious problem, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans largely agree. So that’s one area where you see a little bit of bipartisanship.
ORLINS: Interesting. What about for policy makers? If you’re sitting in the NSC (National Security Council), and you need to make policy decisions in 2023, what does that mean for the kinds of decisions that the policy makers as opposed to the politicians should be making?
SILVER: Because we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, non-policy shop, I can’t quite answer that directly, but I can say that it is important to look at how different people feel across different issues. We see, for example, that the issue of Taiwan is rising in terms of people’s concerns. The China-Russia partnership is of particular concern, and Americans in general are changing their views on the Ukraine-Russia involvement for the U.S., and that differs by Republicans and Democrats. That’s not in the results I presented, but it’s something that we’ve been exploring for the last year as part of Pew Research Center’s General polling.
So I would say keeping an eye on kind of these hot button issues around the world and how people feel about them and how that’s evolving is definitely something worth doing.
ORLINS: You know, the timing of this poll was, I think, interesting. Obviously, it came after the balloon fiasco where Americans literally could see the challenge of the U.S.-China relationship in the sky. It came after President Xi and President Putin met in Moscow. It came in the lead up to Tsai Ing-wen transit visit to the United States—pretty terribly negative events for the U.S.-China relationship. Did you consider delaying the poll?
SILVER: So, we’re relatively locked in on poll timing because this survey is part of a larger cross-national survey that’s going to include 24 countries this year. We’re starting to analyze the results of global views of China, and we’ll be releasing that this summer.
So we couldn’t really easily delay it. But what we did do was try and account for it. So rather than asking new questions, particularly on things like the balloon, what we tried to do was ask trend questions. For example, we asked about the concerns Americans have about China’s growing technological power. It’s not an exact measure of how people felt about that issue, but we hoped that if we saw movement, we would have some idea of how the context was playing a role.
Similarly, we asked about the China-Russia partnership in exactly the same wording we had done in the past and concerns about tensions between mainland China and Taiwan. And we do see movement for both of those. We see people are more concerned about them now than they were in October. So we couldn’t delay it, but we could respond to it, making sure that we didn’t just have point estimates that were isolated, but that we could look at how they’ve changed over time.
ORLINS: Could you quantify what that effect was?
SILVER: Well, what we can see is they’re more concerned than they were in October.
ORLINS: Was it five points worse, or did it increase—the Russia-China concern, ten points or percent? I mean, it was so much in the news and people are so response of to what’s currently in the news.
SILVER: Yeah. So tensions between China and Taiwan was up four percentage points and tensions and the partnership between China and Russia was up five percentage points since October.
ORLINS: I see. So it had a material but not overwhelming effect. So that’s interesting. The talk about the banning TikTok poll results. Can you break out some of the data that you say two-thirds of Americans favor banning TikTok?
SILVER: Yeah. So we asked this question about whether or not people support or oppose banning TikTok in the US. And there are a couple of interesting demographic differences. Older people, for example, tend to be much more supportive of the ban than younger people. We see 71% of those ages 65 and older support such a ban compared to 29% of those under 30.
Some of that is definitely usage. So, Tik Tok users in general tend to be much less supportive of a ban than non-users, but older people in general are more supportive of a ban even once you account for usage.
Republicans and Democrats also differ. So, 60% of Republicans support a ban compared to 43% of Democrats. But a lot of this is also driven by usage. So Republicans and Democrats who use the app are equally likely to support the ban. Among non-users, Republicans are more likely to support a ban.
ORLINS: Did the question say if you’re aware that that ByteDance is Chinese owned? And then I get to a substantive question, which is, is ByteDance Chinese owned? Because in my understanding, it’s owned by KKR, SoftBank, Sequoia Capital, the Carlyle—my former partners at the Carlyle Group—General Atlantic and others.
SILVER: So earlier in the questionnaire, we asked two knowledge questions. One was about where the parent company, ByteDance, is based. So we didn’t call it Chinese-owned. We asked where ByteDance itself is based, which is China.
And we asked another question about technological ownership, where we asked the name of the parent company for Google. So, these were both knowledge questions that were multiple choice. The parent company one was actually kind of a distractor, and then we asked 14 questions that were unrelated to TikTok before we got back to support and oppose a ban. So the question itself about support or oppose the ban did not reference China. However, we had 14 questions earlier asked them this question about knowledge. So we were able to look across those to figure out that people who actually know that ByteDance is based in China are more likely to support the ban.
ORLINS: Mm. Interesting. You have a lot of questions on China’s role in the world and the view of Americans is China interferes too much in the in the affairs of other countries, for instance Taiwan. Do we have polling on the Chinese views of whether America interferes too much in the affairs of others? Of course, the Chinese—a fundamental tenant of Chinese policy is our Taiwan policy is an interference in Chinese affairs.
SILVER: Yeah. So unfortunately, we haven’t been able to survey in China since 2016, so we don’t have directly comparable data. That said, this is certainly a question where a lot of people see the U.S. as an interventionist, interfering power. And part of the reason that we asked it is that we asked it about both superpowers, and we asked it in all 24 countries where we’re surveying.
So this summer, we’ll be releasing a comparison then to look at what percentage of people in different countries think this of the U.S. versus think this of China. And that’s actually the case for almost all of the questions I’ve shown you. We’re going to be doing a relatively deep dive comparing views of the U.S. and views of China in the 24 countries where we surveyed, which this year, thankfully, for the first time since 2019, include a lot more developing economies, We haven’t been able to do a lot of face-to-face polling because of the pandemic, and we’re excited to say that we are able to do that this year.
ORLINS: And what’s going to be the breakdown of that between what I would call the developed west and the rest of the world?
SILVER: It’s still heavier on the developed west. It’ll include most of the countries you’ve seen in our past reporting. But we will be in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, India, and a number of other places I’m probably forgetting right now.
ORLINS: As you know better than I do, the polling on the developing world view of China and the west’s view of China is quite starkly different.
SILVER: It has been in our polling, though we had seen some movements towards more negative views of China in 2019 compared to previous years, and so I’ll be curious to see how it shakes out. We have not been to these places since then and so we’re really excited to get a clear read of how it’s going.
ORLINS: You have these questions about getting more out of the economic relationship. I guess probably because I worked on trade for a significant part of my career, I don’t quite understand what that means. If you buy something for a buck, I get the buck and you get the thing. We’ve each benefited. It’s a commercial transaction.
What does this mean? What are people getting at, or what are you guys getting at when you talk about one side getting more out of the economic relationship than the other?
SILVER: Yeah. So your view is spoken like an economist who has a view of trade that adheres, I would say, to economic principles of comparative advantage. That is not how the public assesses foreign trade. Generally speaking, there are large swaths of the American public—or publics more globally, but I know more about the American public’s views of trade—who believe that trade is zero sum, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise.
There’s been a lot of really interesting and compelling experimentation on this, much of it done by Professor Diana Mutz, who is my dissertation advisor, but she, for example, has done some experiments while she where she will look at telling Americans, let’s say this policy creates one job in the U.S. and five jobs in China. There are a large share of Americans who would turn that down because they would see that China is getting more out of it than the U.S., even though I think an economist would look at that and say, hey, that’s great—net job creation, right?
One of the things we wanted to understand as a result was, are Americans who think about trade thinking about the fact that one country might be getting more than the other out of the relationship? And how does that factor into their views of how they should cooperate? And so we asked this question that asked whether or not in the trade relationship between the U.S. and China, the U.S. gets more, China gets more, both benefit equally, or neither get advantages from it.
But we wanted to also understand if they just feel that way about trade in general, that it’s extortionary for the United States. So we asked the same question about Canada to compare between the two. And what we found essentially is that Americans tend to see China getting more out of the trade relationship at the expense of the U.S., whereas in the case of Canada, around half of Americans think that the two countries benefit equally. So I think the comparison kind of illuminates how people think about our trade relationship with China.
ORLINS: It’s the first time I’ve ever been called an economist. I’m a lapsed lawyer.
The Republican Party’s got some significant differences, I think 66 versus 43, kind of negative to slightly negative. What accounts for that within the Republican Party?
SILVER: We can’t say causally what accounts for it. But one of the most interesting analyzes I think that we’ve done was a couple of years ago when we looked at how people engage with the media and how this is related to their views of foreign policy issues, including views of foreign countries. And one thing we know, for example, is that people who tune into stations that have a primarily right-leaning audience tend to feel much more negatively about China than other people who, even of the same party, don’t tune in to kind of these ideological echo chambers in the news media.
And so some of this might be related to the fact that conservative Republicans have a news diet that’s based more on kind of these right-leaning or slightly more skewed echo chamber outlets than do more moderate or liberal Republicans.
ORLINS: I see. You ask, you know, what’s the world’s leading economy? You ask about standards of living. What’s the point of those questions? I mean, there are answers to those questions. The question really relates somewhat to the educational level of the respondent. There is data that tells you the answer. Why are you asking Americans what their perception is? Is it just about saying, but we need to educate Americans on what the the real data is? What’s this all about?
SILVER: Yeah. So especially for that world’s top economy question, we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it cross-nationally because there is a correct answer. However, a lot of countries don’t actually say that the U.S. is the world’s top economy, and it tends to vary based on a number of different factors. For example, in Western Europe, we have ended up seeing in recent years that more people tend to view China as the world’s leading economy than the U.S. In developing countries, it can be somewhat mixed. And so there is this question about who is GDP is larger, but this question is clearly tapping something more fundamental about kind of the largesse of that country on the international stage or in people’s eyes.
And the same is true of the standard of living question. We put that in as part of this battery that’s trying to get at a general concept of soft power. We asked it alongside views of the universities, views of technologic products, entertainment products, and we did that both for China and for the United States. So, we’ll be comparing those this summer. But you might look at the U.S. versus China and look at straight GDP per capita measures and say, okay, the U.S. GDP per capita is higher than that of China.
But the question really is, when people from around the world look at these two countries, do they see one as a place where they can move and be more affluent and have more opportunities? Or do they see the citizens in those societies living better lives? With the inequality that we have in the United States, there is the chance that people will say that China has a higher standard of living than the U.S. I don’t know. We haven’t analyzed that data, but that’s kind of the general thought process behind why we included it.
ORLINS: Even if I respond and thinks that China’s economy is bigger, I doubt they would think about emigrating to China. The United States remains the bright shining city on the hill for immigration.
SILVER: That is probably true, but the idea of soft power, I think, goes beyond just would you want to move there, to, does your country command some sort of influence? Can it help shape different policies in international organizations and things of that sort? Political scientists argue all the time about whether or not soft power is itself power. But I think we are interested in how publics think and whether or not there’s an attraction power to these particular superpowers.
ORLINS: One of the stunning, I guess, when I first the first question was, is there anything that surprised you? And I said there was nothing that surprised me. But in fact, there was which was the percentage of young people who didn’t know who the president of China was—if I recall correctly, 27%?
SILVER: I’d have to double check that number. But honestly, the share of Americans in general who didn’t know Xi [Jinping] was quite a bit lower than the share of Americans who didn’t know other superpowers that might surprise you, including, I believe, something like four in ten Americans didn’t know Modi. That attracted quite a bit of attention from our Indian readers.
ORLINS: So some didn’t know who the president of China was, but there was an overwhelming lack of confidence in his ability to do what’s right for the world. What’s kind of driving that?
SILVER: Generally, we’ve seen relatively negative views of China’s leadership for most of the history of us asking about it, and particularly in recent years, there’s a fair bit of correlation between favorability of the country and confidence in the leader, and this is the case for many of the countries and leaders we ask about, and also the case when it comes to views of the U.S. and U.S. presidents typically, overseas.
But essentially, as we’ve seen, views of China turn more negative, we have simultaneously seen a growing lack of confidence in President Xi. And so these numbers are relatively consistent with those in years past.
ORLINS: And this summer poll is going to look at kind of confidence in Americans, in the American leadership.
SILVER: Yes. From other countries.
ORLINS: From other countries. Yeah. I think the question that I always ask is, you know, we have no confidence in China, but China didn’t fight a war in Iraq based upon incorrect intelligence. So it kind of raises very fundamental questions as to what level of confidence people should have in both countries.
SILVER: Yeah. And in 2020, fewer people around the world when we surveyed had confidence in Donald Trump than said the same of President Xi. So it is certainly true that our leadership does not always evoke confidence overseas. That said, President Xi has—very few countries have a lot of confidence in President Xi either.
ORLINS: If you had more money and more time—last question, because we’re out of time—what questions would you have asked, what additional questions would you have put into this survey? Since you’re always limited by time and money, I know.
SILVER: We are, though this survey in particular had more China content than we have had in a while. You know, I am always particularly interested in trying to get at how to understand the China-Taiwan conflict and what Americans know about it and what they would like to see. We experimented for a while. It wasn’t actually a space issue. We just could not formulate a single standalone question that got at all of the complexity of that situation.
So I wrote a blog post about it based on some of the experiments we did, but we couldn’t decide whether or not to say, in the event of a conflict—or in the event of China invading Taiwan—or in the event of China invading Taiwan if Taiwan has declared independence—all of those led the American public to have very different views, and we couldn’t decide what question to ask that was most fair to the situation or highlighted all of the possible eventualities, and we eventually just dropped the concept.
So I want more space so I can do it in a lot of ways because I think that that’s the fairest way to deal with such a complex issue.
ORLINS: As you know, I love your polling. If you guys didn’t do it, I think the National Committee would have to pay for a similar poll. So we’re thankful to Pew for having you do this polling. It adds an enormous amount of data to the discussion, and we use that data to inform our programming. So thank you so much for doing this, and thank you so much for doing the poll.
SILVER: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.