In the past two weeks China has featured prominently in the headlines in the US. FBI Director Christopher Wray declared that ‘acts of espionage and theft by China’s government pose the “greatest long-term threat” to the future of the US’, the State Department imposed ground breaking sanctions on Chinese politicians responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and more details emerged about the severity of the Hong Kong National Security Law unilaterally imposed by Beijing.
We at Redfield & Wilton strategies polled the US public on Thursday 9th July to learn more about their views on China and its role in the upcoming presidential election.
We found that 62% of Americans now consider China to be a threat to the US and its interests, an 8-point increase since we last polled a similar question in June. Strikingly, a majority of likely Biden voters (58%) also view China as a threat now, and the proportion of likely Trump voters viewing China as a threat (75%) remains high. However, it is worth noting that the phrasing of the question and its answer codes is somewhat different and some of these changes could come from the question in the July poll being asked about China alongside other countries, prompting respondents to compare and contrast.
56% of respondents say the stance of the candidates towards China will be very or moderately important to them in deciding who to vote for, while only 21% say it will not be at all important to their vote. These responses underline our findings in June that being perceived to have a strong position on China will likely be an asset for the presidential candidates. However, this result will be somewhat more important for Trump than for Biden, given that 73% of likely Trump voters say that the candidates’ stance on China will be very or moderately important, compared to (a still significant) 48% of likely Biden voters. Among those who said they don’t know how they will vote in November, a plurality (34%) say the stance of candidates on China is only somewhat important, and a similarly large proportion (32%) of these voters say it is not at all important.
Both these findings put further pressure on candidate Biden to give greater clarity on his vision for US-China relations as public opinion on whether Biden will be tough on China has not changed since June. 28% of respondents still do not know where Biden stands on this major campaign issue, while slightly more respondents think Biden will not be tough on China than those who think he will (37% to 35%).
One thing for the Biden campaign to note may be the fact that only 9% of those who don’t know how they will vote in November think Biden will be tough on China. However, Biden might still have time to shape perceptions, as 59% of undecided voters haven’t yet decided if they consider Biden tough on China or not.
By contrast, a majority of respondents (52%) still believe Donald Trump will be tough on China, showing his clear advantage on the issue.
Biden’s ambiguous stance, as we previously explored, mirrors the divisions among his likely voters, who are roughly equally divided between being undecided on how to approach relations with China, favouring closer relations with China, favouring more distant relations, and maintaining the status quo (22%, 28%, 25%, 25% respectively).
Our questions on China in relation to coronavirus in fact further reveal the American public’s hunger for firm policies against China. Notably, a plurality of respondents (30%) say the Trump administration’s stance towards China over the coronavirus pandemic has not been aggressive enough. This response contrasts with the fact that a majority believe Trump will be tough on China, suggesting that the public’s expectations of what it means to be ‘tough on China’ might be increasing as China comes under greater scrutiny. On the other hand, 27% say the Trump administration’s response has been about right. Opinion seems to have hardened from June. In contrast to the present poll results, in June more respondents felt the administration’s response had been ‘about right’ (35%) than those who felt it had not been aggressive enough (25%).
This hardening of opinion comes as our poll suggests the US public continues to judge China severely for its role in the pandemic, even if some indicators have slightly decreased from June. For example, 60% of respondents believe the Chinese government covered up the severity of the virus when it first emerged, slightly down from June when 63% said the same. However, such responses remain a damning assessment of China’s culpability in the outbreak of COVID-19 by the US public.
Indeed, 56% agree that the Chinese Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic indicates it presents a danger to the United States and to the world, with only 13% disagreeing. These results, virtually unchanged from June, provide evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has been a major catalyst for hardening sentiment against China in the US.
Respondents also overwhelming agree (55%, a slight decrease from June’s 58%) that China should be held responsible for the pandemic. However, the proportion of likely Biden voters with the same view is much lower at 37%. This discrepancy is possibly due to Biden voters being more likely to blame the federal government’s response for the pandemic’s severity in the US, than likely Trump voters. However, it is still only a minority of Biden voters (27%) who believe that China should not be held responsible for the pandemic, meaning that Biden is unlikely to be punished by his voters if he takes a stronger stance against China’s coronavirus response. Among Trump voters, a striking 79% believe China should be held responsible.
As we found in June, there is a clear appetite in the US for China to be held accountable, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This pressure is unlikely to abate as China continues to exercise a more aggressive foreign policy and as controversy continues to surround the Hong Kong National Security Bill.