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Numerous public opinion surveys have found that Americans’ views of China have become extremely negative in recent years. Much less is understood about the trends in Chinese views of the United States and the countries’ bilateral relations. As leaders in both countries have come under public pressure about their policy stances toward the other side, it is critical to fill the gap. This study develops a theoretical argument about how a concern for political legitimacy may allow public opinion to influence foreign policy making in authoritarian countries, and it presents findings from a two-wave public opinion survey in China conducted before and after the 2020 US presidential election. The results show that Chinese evaluations of the bilateral relationship and of the United States slumped during the Trump era but rebounded somewhat after Biden took office. In addition, the majority of Chinese respondents believed their country to be the world’s largest and leading economy and favored China being the world’s leading power, either by itself or alongside the United States. Furthermore, younger and more educated respondents held more negative views, although these were mitigated by personal connections with and experiences in the United States. These findings have important policy implications.
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The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, 00, 1–20
Chinese Public Opinion about US–China
Relations from Trump to Biden
Songying Fang, Xiaojun Li,*and Adam Y. Liu§
Department of Political Science, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia,
§Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore
*Corresponding author. Email:
Numerous public opinion surveys have found that Americans’ views of China have become extremely
negative in recent years. Much less is understood about the trends in Chinese views of the USA and
the countries’ bilateral relations. As leaders in both countries have come under public pressure about
their policy stances toward the other side, it is critical to ll the gap. This study develops a theoretical
argument about how a concern for political legitimacy may allow public opinion to inuence foreign
policy making in authoritarian countries, and it presents ndings from a two-wave public opinion survey
in China conducted before and after the 2020 US presidential election. The results show that Chinese
evaluations of the bilateral relationship and of the USA slumped during the Trump era but rebounded
somewhat after Biden took ofce. In addition, the majority of Chinese respondents believed their coun-
try to be the world’s largest and leading economy and favored China being the world’s leading power,
either by itself or alongside the USA. Furthermore, younger and more educated respondents held more
negative views, although these were mitigated by personal connections with and experiences in the
USA. These ndings have important policy implications.
In the rst top-level meeting between the Biden administration and the Chinese government,
on 18 March 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska, the two teams went off script on live television
and exchanged heated words that were broadcast around the globe.1Remarks by China’s
foreign affairs chief, Yang Jiechi, went viral on China’s social media platforms, with hun-
dreds of thousands of views, shares, and comments.2A particular message from Yang to
1Nikkei Asia, “How It Happened: Transcript of the US-China Opening Remarks in Alaska,
19 March, 2021,
Transcript-of-the-US-China-opening-remarks-in-Alaska; Matthew Lee and Mark Thiessen, “US, China Spar in
First Face-to-Face Meeting under Biden,” AP News, 19 March 2021,
2Huang Lanlan and Yang Sheng, “Netizens Applaud Chinese Delegation’s Sharp Response to US at
Alaska Talks,Global Times, 19 March 2021,; Justin
McCurry, “US and China Publicly Rebuke Each Other in First Major Talks of Biden Era,” The Guardian, 19
March 2021,
© The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Institute of International Relations,
Tsinghua University. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:
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his American counterparts, “This is not the way to deal with Chinese people,” was an
instant hit. The tone of the words in Chinese was in fact more pungent than its English
translation and apparently struck a chord with the Chinese public, who had experienced a
tumultuous relationship with the USA during the Trump administration and perhaps hoped
for a warmer start with President Biden. In a matter of two days, T-shirts, canvas handbags,
and phone cases printed with Yang’s retort were selling in online stores.3There was little
question that Yang, a seasoned diplomat who is uent in English, had the Chinese audience
in mind when uttering those strong words—in fact, they were easy to understand in Chi-
nese but so difcult to translate into English that a cottage industry quickly sprang up to
generate a “better” translation than the ofcial version.
The episode is one of the clearest anecdotes showing that Chinese leaders are mindful
of public perceptions of their performances on the world stage. It is also consistent with a
long-held view among China watchers that Chinese leaders are under tremendous domes-
tic pressure to act tough on the international stage and cannot afford to appear soft with
their foreign rivals.4Advancements in communication and social media technologies have
increased the pressure, as news and nationalistic sentiments can spread like wildre online,
despite sophisticated censorship.5Moreover, compared with domestic events, it is more
challenging to censor or “guide” public opinion about foreign affairs, where numerous
alternative (both domestic and foreign) sources of information are available. Many of the
interactions between the USA and China since the election of Trump in 2016 have played
out in public for the entire world to see. Consequently, leaders on both sides have had to
react to each other’s policies while being watched by their respective domestic audiences,
and the top diplomats in Anchorage were aware of this.6
This interaction between foreign policy and domestic politics highlights the importance
of understanding public opinion on both sides to manage complex US–China relations. Yet,
compared with numerous systematic studies of American public opinion on China and the
countries’ bilateral relationship,7Chinese perceptions of the USA and related foreign policy
issues are not nearly as well understood. Existing studies and a series of Pew Research Center
Global Attitudes Surveys (PGASs) have provided valuable insights into Chinese nation-
alism and public opinion on a range of global issues,8but they either have focused on
specic foreign policy issues or were conducted before Trump’s presidency, during which
3Reuters, “Sellers of T-Shirts, Phone Cases Make Most of China’s Diplomatic Riposte,” 22 March, 2021,
4Jennie Welch, “China’s Domestic Pressures Shape Assertive Foreign Policy,” Center for Strategic and
International Studies, 16 November 2012,
foreign-policy/; Christopher W. Bishop, “To Understand China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy, Look at Its Domestic
Politics,” Council on Foreign Relations, 8 October 2020,
5Margaret E. Roberts, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2018).
6Nicole Gaouette, et al., “Extraordinary Diplomatic Clash Signals Tough Times Ahead for the US and China,
CNN, 20 March 2021,
7For some examples of American public opinion surveys conducted between 2020 and 2021 on China-related
issues, see Laura Silver, et al., “Americans Fault China for Its Role in the Spread of COVID-19,Pew Research
Center, 30 July 2020,
spread-of-covid-19/; Laura Silver, et al., “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,
Pew Research Center, 6 October 2020,
of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/; Laura Silver, et al., “Most Americans Support Tough
Stance Toward China on Human Rights, Economic Issues, Pew Research Center, 4 March 2021,
human-rights-economic-issues/; Mohamed Younis, “New High in Perceptions of China as U.S.’s Greatest
Enemy,Gallup, 16 March 2021,
enemy.aspx. For a recent example of survey experiment on American opinions of China, see Jonathan A. Chu,
“Liberal Ideology and Foreign Opinion on China,” International Studies Quarterly Vol. 65, No. 4 (2021), pp.
8For the goal of the PGAS, see
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signicant changes in the bilateral relationship occurred.9This study addresses the gap both
theoretically and empirically.
Theoretically, we develop a new argument for why public opinion may inuence foreign
policy making in authoritarian countries in general, and we provide extensive evidence that
in its decision making, the Chinese government has relied on and incorporated sophisticated
analysis of online public opinion on both domestic and foreign policy issues.10 Empirically,
we present ndings from a two-wave public opinion survey in China conducted imme-
diately before and after the 2020 US presidential election. The survey questions probed
Chinese public opinion on a broad range of issues related to US–China relations, the USA,
and China’s status in the world vis-à-vis the USA. The purpose of a before-and-after election
design was to gauge whether some of the Chinese perceptions were tied to the Trump pres-
idency, which saw an unprecedented rocky relationship between the two countries. To our
knowledge, this study is the rst to use the same survey instrument to compare changes in
Chinese public opinion under two American presidencies. These questions were primarily
chosen from several past PGASs related to US–China relations so we could discern changes
across time, but we also added new questions relevant to the current geopolitical context.
We highlight our main ndings here. First, the Chinese public’s evaluation of US–China
relations and of the USA has deteriorated dramatically compared with before the Trump
presidency. Second, more respondents believed the USA to be playing a less important role
in the world and had less condence in a US president doing the right thing in world affairs.
These assessments improved somewhat after Biden took ofce, suggesting some but not all
of the changes could be attributed to the tenure of President Trump. Third, the majority of
the Chinese respondents believed their country to be the world’s leading as well as largest
economy and favored China playing a leadership role internationally, either by itself or
alongside the USA. Finally, younger and more educated respondents held more negative
views, although these were mitigated by personal connections with and experiences in the
USA. These ndings have important policy implications.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. Building on public opinion research that
focused on democracies and the literature on authoritarian resilience, we rst develop
a theoretical argument for why public opinion may inuence foreign policy decisions in
authoritarian countries, drawing on primary sources of government reports. We then intro-
duce our survey design and present the ndings, which are followed by a discussion of
whether the Chinese public can develop opinions unltered through state propaganda. We
conclude by offering some thoughts on the policy and potential long-term implications of
the survey ndings.
Chinese Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Until recently, public opinion research on foreign policy issues has focused on democracies.
This reects both a common assumption that public opinion matters only in democra-
cies and the fact that there are easily identiable causal mechanisms for how it matters.
Specically, the literature has identied two channels through which public opinion may
inuence foreign policy in democracies: selection and responsiveness.11 The selection mech-
anism refers to citizens’ ability to electorally choose leaders who share their foreign policy
9One exception is the “Survey on How Chinese View the United States,” conducted in July 2019 by the
China–United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) and the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS)
at Peking University.
10 Guobin Yang, “Internet and Civil Society,” in William S. Tay and Alvin Y. So, eds., Handbook of Contem-
porary China (Singapore: World Scientic Publishing, 2012), pp. 437–54; Lianrui Jia, “What Public and Whose
Opinion? A Study of Chinese Online Public Opinion Analysis,” Communication and the Public, Vol. 4, No. 1
(2019), pp. 21–34.
11 Michael Tomz, et al., “Public Opinion and Decisions About Military Force in Democracies,International
Organization, Vol. 74, No. 1 (2020), pp. 119–43.
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preferences, while the responsiveness mechanism refers to leaders’ incentive to respond to
public opinion while in ofce “out of concern that rebufng the public could be politically
costly.12 The evidence from observational or historical data about the effectiveness of these
two causal mechanisms is mixed, although a recent experimental study nds support for the
working of both.13 The mixed evidence has been sufcient to motivate numerous systematic
studies of public opinion in the USA and other established democracies on a wide of range
of foreign policy issues, including the use of military force, impressions of foreign leaders,
and the favourability of other countries.14
In contrast, scant research has probed public opinion on foreign policy issues in authori-
tarian countries in general, and China in particular. To be sure, research on China’s foreign
policies, especially those over territorial disputes or the use of military force, is quick to
acknowledge the relevance of nationalistic sentiment to the government’s hard-line pos-
tures.15 This focus on nationalism, however, sees Chinese public opinion expressed in terms
of emotions rather than preferences over issues, as the concept is typically applied in demo-
cratic contexts. Moreover, this approach has the effect of directing scholarly attention to
issues that are prone to generating emotional responses, overlooking a much wider range of
issues over which the public can form preferences that can in turn inuence foreign policies.
We argue that while a selection mechanism may not be applicable for public opin-
ion to matter in these countries, a responsiveness mechanism can nevertheless exist.
Such responsiveness to public opinion arises from a concern for regime legitimacy rather
than for electoral costs. Research on authoritarian resilience has identied political legit-
imacy, i.e., public perceptions of a regime’s right to rule, as a key factor, because such
perceptions increase citizens’ acceptance of and compliance with a government’s author-
ity.16 Contemporary political philosophy highlights two sources of political legitimacy:
procedural legitimacy, characterized by wide and equal citizen participation in decision
making, and performance legitimacy, characterized by high-quality outcomes from deci-
sions made.17 Authoritarian governments are typically viewed as having weak procedural
legitimacy, making them more dependent on bringing better outcomes to gain performance
legitimacy.18 Indeed, it is often said that the Communist Party of China (CPC) enjoys perfor-
mance legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people by raising their living standards through
rapid economic growth.19 However, incorporating public opinion into decision making can
enhance procedural legitimacy for authoritarian governments by giving citizens a sense of
inclusion and inuence on policy decisions. China scholars, for instance, have argued that
12 Ibid., p. 120.
13 Ibid.
14 See, for example, the Pew Global Attitudes Project,
15 See, for example, Mark S. Bell and Kai Quek, “Authoritarian Public Opinion and the Democratic Peace,”
International Organization, Vol. 72, No. 1 (2018), pp. 227–42; Songying Fang and Xiaojun Li, “Historical
Ownership and Territorial Disputes,The Journal of Politics, Vol. 82, No. 1 (2020), pp. 345–60; Songying Fang
and Fanglu Sun, “Gauging Chinese Public Support for China’s Role in Peacekeeping,The Chinese Journal of
International Politics, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2019), pp. 179–201; Xiaojun Li and Dingding Chen, “Public Opinion,
International Reputation, and Audience Costs in an Authoritarian Regime,” Conict Management and Peace
Science, Vol. 38, No. 5 (2021), pp. 543–60; Kai Quek and Alastair Iain Johnston, “Can China Back Down?
Crisis De-escalation in the Shadow of Popular Opposition,” International Security, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2017), pp.
7–36; Jessica Chen Weiss and Allan Dafoe, “Authoritarian Audiences, Rhetoric, and Propaganda in International
Crises: Evidence from China,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4 (2019), pp. 963–73.
16 Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy,
Vol. 14, No. 1 (2003), pp. 6–17; Johannes Gerschewski, “The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repres-
sion, and Co-optation in Autocratic Regimes,” Democratization, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2013), pp. 13–38; Scott
Williamson, “Elections, Legitimacy, and Compliance in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from the Arab World,”
Democratization, Vol. 28, No. 8 (2021), pp. 1483–504.
17 Fabienne Peter, “Political Legitimacy,” in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Summer 2017 edition),
18 Gerschewski, “The Three Pillars of Stability.
19 Yuchao Zhu, “‘Performance Legitimacy’ and China’s Political Adaptation Strategy,Journal of Chinese
Political Science, No. 2 (2011), pp. 123–40.
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a series of input institutions, such as petition ofces and public consultations, which allow
people to express their concerns and grievances, have existed for decades in China and have
contributed to the CPC’s legitimacy and resilience.20
Does the Chinese government pay attention to public opinion? And how much attention
does the Chinese public pay to foreign affairs? The annual reports titled Analysis of Public
Sentiment on China’s Internet (henceforth referred to as the “Report”), compiled by People’s
Dailys Online Public Opinion and Public Policy Research Center, provide valuable clues
for answers to both questions. The rst report, published in January 2008, proclaimed that
a new mechanism for public opinion to form had emerged in the Information Age.21 It
observed that individuals were more willing to express their opinions online than in the
real world and that the convergence of public opinion online could put enormous pressure
on the government. Among other things, the Reports detail the successes and failures of
the government at various levels and agencies in handling online public opinion crises each
year and note numerous cases where government policies have adapted in response to the
crises. Since 2011, foreign policy issues have started to appear on the list of China’s “top 20
Internet events of the year.” These foreign policy issues include not just territorial disputes
in the South China Sea and Diaoyu islands22 but also such events as the 2015 European
refugee crisis and President Xi’s visit to the USA.23 In 2016, the US presidential election
made it into the top ve Internet events of the year, along with the G20 Hangzhou Summit
and the South China Sea ruling, while the China–US trade war was by far the most discussed
Internet event of 2018, surpassing any domestic events.24 The increasing attention that the
Chinese public have paid to foreign affairs likely reects not just the fact that their country
nds itself in a rapidly changing external environment but also a sense that their personal
lives may be impacted by China’s foreign relations, the trade war being a prime example.
There is also evidence in their rhetoric and postures that Chinese ofcials do respond
to public preferences, as suggested by Yang’s remarks in Alaska cited earlier. A further
example is the phenomenon of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—the widely noted fact
that Chinese diplomats have adopted a more vocal and assertive posture in public settings
and on social media in the last few years, breaking from a much longer tradition of keeping
a low prole.25 The approach has been heavily criticized by Western media and ofcials
and seen as counterproductive to China’s foreign relations; however, there is little sign that
20 Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard,” p. 14. For examples of such institutions in domestic and public
policymaking, see Steven J. Balla, “Is Consultation the ‘New Normal?’: Online Policymaking and Governance
Reform in China,” Journal of Chinese Political Science, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2017), pp. 375–92; Thomas Bernauer,
et al., “Could More Civil Society Involvement Increase Public Support for Climate Policy-Making? Evidence from
a Survey Experiment in China,” Global Environmental Change, Vol. 40 (2016), pp. 1–12; Jidong Chen, et al.,
“Sources of Authoritarian Responsiveness: A Field Experiment in China,” American Journal of Political Science,
Vol. 60, No. 2 (2016), pp. 383–400; Gregory Distelhorst, “The Power of Empty Promises: Quasi-Democratic
Institutions and Activism in China,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2017), pp. 464–98; Jonathan
R. Stromseth, et al., China’s Governance Puzzle: Enabling Transparency and Participation in a Single-Party State
(New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
21 Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2007 zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao [2007 Analysis of Public Sentiment
on China’s Internet],” in Xin Ru, et al., eds., 2008 zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce [2008 Society of China
Analysis and Forecast] (Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press, 2008), pp. 234–53.
22 Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2012 zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao [2012 Analysis of Public Sentiment
on China’s Internet],” in Wei Li, et al., eds., 2013 zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce [2013 Society of China
Analysis and Forecast] (Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press, 2013), pp. 193–212.
23 Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2015 zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao [2015 Analysis of Public Sentiment
on China’s Internet],” in Peilin Li, et al., eds., 2016 zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce [2016 Society of
China Analysis and Forecast] (Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press, 2016), pp. 219–40.
24 Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2016 zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao [2016 Analysis of Public Sentiment
on China’s Internet],” in Lei Fan, et al., eds., 2017 zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce [2017 Society of China
Analysis and Forecast] (Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press, 2017), pp. 229–47; Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2018
zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao [2018 Analysis of Public Sentiment on China’s Internet],” in Peilin Li,
et al., eds., 2019 zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce [2019 Society of China Analysis and Forecast] (Beijing:
Social Sciences Literature Press, 2019), pp. 264–81.
25 Zhiqun Zhu, “Interpreting China’s Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, 15 May 2020, https://the
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it is going away. One plausible explanation for the phenomenon is that Chinese citizens
are highly supportive of the new style of public diplomacy.26 From the perspective of the
government, as we argued above, aligning with public preferences in foreign policy helps
strengthen regime legitimacy; such legitimacy, in turn, facilitates the mobilization of societal
resources for achieving foreign policy goals.27
Beyond the rhetoric and postures, substantive policies can also be inuenced by public
opinion. Rhetoric and postures adopted by high-level diplomats, such as Yang and Blinken
in Alaska, can have foreign policy consequences because they commit a government pub-
licly to a hard-line policy position that can be costly to retreat from when specic policies
are made. Domestic opposition, international third parties, as well as the public may all
scrutinize the connection between words and deeds, and impose various costs if there are
obvious inconsistencies between the two. Specic to China, any compromise by the Chinese
side coming out of the Alaska meeting would have been seen as bowing to US pressure, and
they would have been criticized by the domestic public for not protecting China’s national
interests; moreover, other countries would have inferred that China did not mean what it
said at such a high-prole event, which would have undermined China’s international cred-
ibility. Neither of these would have been a desirable outcome for the Chinese leadership.
Therefore, the public rhetoric and posture made it difcult, if not impossible, to achieve
any progress on issues of mutual concern in the rst high-level ofcial meeting between
the two countries under the Biden administration. Moreover, both sides were henceforth
locked into a chilly relationship that would continue for some time, squandering precious
opportunities for cooperation, with signicant real-world ramications in times of a global
pandemic, climate crisis, and looming economic recessions.
A question remains: given that the Chinese government possesses powerful means to
shape public discourse, can the public develop policy preferences that differ from state pro-
paganda? This is an empirical question, and existing evidence suggests the answer is yes.
The 2015 Report is instructive in this regard.28 It provides summaries of the top issues that
came under public scrutiny that year, the regions that had the most public opinion crises,
as well as government agencies that garnered the most public dissatisfaction. It also analy-
ses how closely the opinions of the state media, opinion leaders, and netizens were aligned
over the most talked about issues online between 2007 and 2015, and the level of satisfac-
tion with the government’s handling of these issues. The results show that the three groups
did not necessarily share the same opinions, and their support for how the government
addressed hot-button issues varied over time. On foreign policy matters, state propaganda
efforts to manage online public opinion have become more challenging as more Chinese
people connect to the outside world, either physically or virtually—Chinese tourists made
169 million outbound trips in 2019;29 2.5 million Chinese students studied abroad from
2016 to 2019, 80% of whom returned to China;30 and the country’s Internet users reached
nearly a billion in 2021.31 Thus, an understanding of Chinese public opinion will provide
26 Qi Wang, “Over 70% Respondents Believe China’s Global Image Has Improved, ‘Wolf Warrior Diplo-
macy’ A Necessary Gesture: GT Poll, Global Times, 25 December 2020,
27 For example, Andrew Chubb argues that since 2012, Beijing has carefully integrated popular nationalistic
sentiments into its South China Sea policy, developing “grassroots deterrence” against other disputants and
potential foreign interventions into the issue. See Andrew Chubb, Chinese Popular Nationalism and PRC Policy
in the South China Sea, PhD dissertation (University of Western Australia, 2016).
28 Huaxin Zhu, et al., “2015 zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao”.
29 Mingjie Wang, “Nation Leads Way for Overseas Travel Resumption, China Daily, 1 June 2021,
30 Xinhua News, “China’s Education Goes International from 2016 to 2020,” 23 December, 2020, http://
31 Palash Ghosh, “China Now Has Almost 1 Billion Internet Users,” Forbes, 4 February 2021, https://www.
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an additional source of information about the logic behind China’s foreign policy in general
and toward the USA in particular.
Our study therefore lls multiple gaps in the international relations research on public
opinion. First, it provides a theoretical argument for why public opinion may matter to
foreign policy in authoritarian countries in general, and China in particular. Second, the
research is one of the rst to comprehensively investigate Chinese public perceptions of
China–US relations, arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world for its
impact on numerous issues of global concern, from climate change to war and peace. The
existing research on related topics primarily focuses on the elite perspectives—i.e., what
Chinese international relations experts think of the USA and the relationship.32 Moreover,
we present data that are more up-to-date than previous studies, including the PGAS, which
collected data before President Trump came into ofce; since then, signicant changes have
occurred in both countries’ domestic politics, in the bilateral relationship, and in world
affairs, including an ongoing global pandemic.33 Finally, by running our survey immediately
before and after the 2020 presidential election, we were able to investigate possible changes
in opinion that may go beyond Trump’s presidency, which many have viewed as an anomaly
in US politics.
Survey Design
To investigate how the Chinese public evaluates China–US relations, as well as these coun-
tries’ international status vis-à-vis each other, we conducted a two-wave survey in China,
with the rst one completed between 29 October and 3 November 2020 and the second
one between 25 January and 2 February 2021.34 We administered the survey to 2083 Chi-
nese adults (1065 for wave 1 and 1018 for wave 2), using a quota sampling strategy that
targeted pre-specied proportions of gender, age group, and geographic location, based on
the latest census.35
Table 1 summarizes the key socioeconomic characteristics of the samples in both survey
waves—gender, age cohorts (born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s), education (college degree
and above), CPC membership, geographical location (coastal versus interior provinces),
religion (Christianity), ethnicity (Han Chinese), and household registration (rural hukou).
Also included are measures of the respondents’ degree of nationalism, their personal expe-
rience with the USA (travel, study, etc.), and their knowledge about China’s military force.
32 David Shambaugh, Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 19721990 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1991); Phillip C. Saunders, “China’s America Watchers: Changing Attitudes Towards the United
States,” The China Quarterly, Vol. 161 (2000), pp. 41–65; Rosalie Chen, “China Perceives America: Perspec-
tives of International Relations Experts,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12, No. 35 (2003), pp. 285–97;
Huiyun Feng, et al., How China Sees the World: Insights from China’s International Relations Scholars (Singa-
pore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Jessica Chen Weiss, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign
Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
33 One exception is the CUSEF–IISS joint survey, which sampled 3216 Chinese citizens in 40 cities as well
as 200 experts based in Beijing between 10 June and 6 July 2019. Nevertheless, as the researchers pointed
out, the survey was conducted at a time when issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and China–U.S.
tech decoupling had not become as contentious as they are today. See IISS, “Summary of Survey Report on
Mutual Perceptions between China and the United States,” 2019,
34 We recruited survey subjects using the Qualtrics online sample service. Qualtrics maintains online panels of
respondents in many countries, China included, who take surveys in exchange for small cash payments. Solicited
respondents were provided a link by Qualtrics that redirected them to the survey, where they read the consent
information before proceeding to the questionnaire.
35 Like the probability-based stratied sampling method, proportional quota sampling aims to achieve a spread
across the target population by specifying who should be recruited for a survey according to certain groups or
criteria. Operationally, the target sample is split into strata proportional to the Chinese population on the three
variables of age, gender, and geographical location. Qualtrics then lls the quota based on respondents who
match the characteristics of each stratum.
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Table 1. Summary statistics for the sample
Wave 1 Wave 2 Difference Combined
Gender (Male =1) 0.51 0.54 −0.03 0.53
Born in the 1960s or earlier 0.24 0.20 0.04 0.22
Born in the 1970s 0.25 0.26 −0.01 0.25
Born in the 1980s 0.30 0.31 −0.01 0.31
Born in the 1990s or later 0.21 0.23 −0.02 0.22
Coastal province 0.54 0.48 0.06 0.51
CPC membership 0.15 0.18 −0.03 0.17
Income 4.63 4.64 −0.01 4.63
College degree and above 0.59 0.62 −0.03 0.61
Christian 0.03 0.05 −0.02 0.04
Han Chinese 0.95 0.92 0.03 0.94
Rural hukou 0.28 0.21 0.07 0.25
Nationalism 0.91 0.90 0.01 0.91
US experience 0.31 0.31 0.00 0.31
Military knowledge 0.29 0.32 −0.03 0.30
All the variables are either binary or scaled between 0 and 1, except for income, which is measured on a seven-
point scale. See the online appendix for question wording and variable coding.
As can be seen, all these variables are nearly identical between the two waves.36 Thus,
even though the two samples predominantly consisted of different respondents, it is not
unreasonable to treat them as comparable.
Consistent with existing studies using online samples in China, our respondents were
more highly educated and more likely to reside in coastal and urban areas than the general
population. A recent study shows that such samples are representative of the nearly one
billion netizens in China.37 In the Chinese context, one could argue that netizens’ opinions
matter even more for the government than those of the general population.38
In both waves of the survey, we asked nine substantive questions, plus an auxiliary ques-
tion, which are summarized in Table 2. These questions fall into three categories, probing
Chinese citizens’ evaluations of (1) China–US bilateral relations; (2) the USA and its role in
the world; and (3) China’s position in the world vis-à-vis the USA.
Notably, seven of the 10 questions (with asterisks) are replicated from the PGAS in China
conducted in Spring 2013 and Spring 2016—i.e., before the Trump administration. Ques-
tion 1 is similar to a question in the 2010 PGAS (“Do you think relations between China
and the USA have improved in recent years, or don’t you think so?”) but with a shorter
timeframe (“in the past year”), as our two waves of survey were separated by only three
Replicating questions from the PGAS makes it possible for us to track potential changes
over time in Chinese public opinion, but how comparable are our respondents to those
in the PGAS samples? When comparing past and present surveys, we want to ensure that
the differences arise from changes in attitudes over time (either gradually or due to some
landmark moments) rather than changes in (1) the underlying samples or (2) survey/question
design. Using the exact wording in the Pew survey rules out (2), but we cannot completely
rule out (1). Our respondents are drawn from an online panel using proportional quota
sampling, whereas the PGAS samples are based on face-to-face interviews with a multi-
stage, area probability design. Both approaches yield samples with basic demographics (age,
36 Two sample t-tests conrm that all of the differences between the two waves are statistically indistinguishable
from zero.
37 Xiaojun Li, et al., “The Face of Internet Recruitment: Evaluating the Labor Markets of Online Crowdsourc-
ing Platforms in China,” Research & Politics, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2018), pp. 1–8.
38 Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).
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Table 2. Survey questions
I. Bilateral
relationship 1. Over the past year, has the US–China relationship gotten better,
worse, or stayed the same?
2*. To what extent does the USA take into account China’s interests
in its international policy decisions?
3a*. How much inuence is the USA having on China’s economic
3b*. [If answer to 3a is “great deal” or “fair amount”] Is the impact
on China’s economic conditions positive or negative?
II. USA and its role in
the world 4*. Compared to 10 years ago, does the USA play a more, less, or as
important a role in the world?
5*. How much condence do you have in a US president to do the
right thing regarding world affairs?
6*. Do you think the US government respects the personal freedoms
of its people?
III. China’s status in
the world vis-à-vis
the USA
7*. Which country is the world’s leading economy?
8. Which country is the world’s largest economy?
9. In the future, which would be better for the world: the
USA/China being the leading power, both leading, or neither.
gender, etc.) benchmarked against national averages in the census but at the same time are
skewed toward urban and higher-income respondents.39 In this sense, these samples are at
least comparable on those metrics. Moreover, given how US–China relations have shifted
drastically since the most recent PGAS in China in 2016, it is reasonable to expect that any
differences in the survey results are much more likely due to changes in bilateral relations
than to residual differences in the samples.
The next section reports the main ndings from the two-wave survey, grouped by the
three categories in Table 2 and contextualized with the respective questions from PGAS,
where applicable. The results are presented in three gures.
Views on the Bilateral Relationship
In our rst wave, conducted immediately before the 2020 presidential election, 75% of
Chinese respondents believed that the bilateral relationship had worsened in the past year.
However, in the second wave, conducted shortly after Biden took ofce, the percentage
seeing a worsening of the relationship dropped to 64%. Correspondingly, those seeing a
better relationship increased from 6% in the rst wave to 15% in the second wave. The dif-
ference between the two waves, separated by just three months, showed a “Biden effect,”40
likely inuenced by Chinese foreign policy opinion leaders who predicted a less turbu-
lent relationship under the new president and even “breakthroughs in resuming high-level
communication and rebuilding mutual strategic trust.41 Nevertheless, the overall nega-
tive perception of the relationship remained high, in stark contrast to the PGAS nding in
40 Because the margin of error for both waves is ±3%, as a simple rule of thumb, a difference of 6% or more
between the same responses from the two waves can be deemed “statistically signicant.
41 “Biden Wins: What’s Next for China-US Relations?” Global Times, 8 November 2020,
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73 18 9
615 75 3
15 19 64 2
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2010)
US-China relations better or worse in the past year?
Better Same
Worse Don't know
12 37 30 8 13
616 29 47 3
10 22 24 42 2
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2013)
How much will US consider China's interests?
A great deal A fair amount Not too much
Not at all Don't know
745 26913
11 48 35 4 3
18 52 24 33
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2013)
US influence on China's economic conditions?
A great deal A fair amount Not too much
Not at all Don't know
24 25 46 5
13 34 51 2
19 35 45 1
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2013)
US impact on economic conditions positive or negative?
Positive Both/Neither
Negative Don't know
Fig. 1. Views on the bilateral relationship
Note: Percentage points may not add up to 100 due to rounding. Source: Authors’ survey.
2010, a year before the USA announced its “Pivot to Asia,”42 where the majority (73%)
of the respondents had seen “improved” bilateral relations and only 18% regarded the
relationship to have either remained the same or gotten worse.43
On the question of whether the USA would take China’s interests into consideration
when making its foreign policies, in our rst wave, 76% of the respondents selected either
“not at all” or “not too much,” with the “not at all” response at 47%. In the second wave,
68% selected the negative options, with 42% reporting “not at all.” Again, this showed a
small but statistically signicant improvement in public perception when Biden took ofce,
but it still represented a 30% increase in negative response compared with the results from
the 2013 PGAS, which saw 38% total negative answers and only 8% choosing the “not
at all” response. This worsening of perception from a baseline of rather strong goodwill is
The extensive trade relations between the USA and China have long been regarded as
the bedrock of stable US–China relations.44 The US–China trade war initiated by Presi-
dent Trump in 2018 worried many Chinese analysts by removing the main anchor for the
bilateral relationship, in addition to its direct damage to the Chinese economy. In both
the 2013 PGAS and our survey, the majority of Chinese respondents agreed that the USA
had a “fair amount” or “great deal” of inuence over the Chinese economy. The number
increased from 52% in the 2013 PGAS to 59% in the 2020 wave and further jumped to
70% in the 2021 wave.45 The jump in the second wave is surprising, perhaps reecting an
42 Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacic Century, Foreign Policy, 11 October 2011, https://foreignpolicy.
43 The 2010 PGAS had only two options for this question: “improved” and “not improved,” the latter
presumably including respondents who believed the relationship had remained the same or become worse.
44 Xinhua News, “China’s Position on the China-US Economic and Trade Consultations,” 3 June, 2020,
45 In the 2013 PGAS, only 35% of Chinese respondents believed that the US had little or no inuence on the
Chinese economy.
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35 16 39 10
12 14 70 5
17 13 66 4
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2016)
US role in the world compared to 10 years ago
More important About the same
Less important Don't know
13 39 21 10 18
416 34 41 5
925 36 255
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2016)
Confidence in US president
Very confident Mod. confident Mod. unconfident
Very unconfident Don't know
61 24 15
29 59 12
38 51 11
020 40 60 80 100
Pew (2016)
Does the US respect the freedom of its people?
Yes No Don't know
Fig. 2. Views of the USA and its role in the world
Note: Percentage points may not add up to 100 due to rounding. Source: Authors’ survey.
65 25 2 7
64 27 1 8
020 40 60 80 100
Leading economy in the world?
China US Others Don't know
53 41 15
53 41 1 5
020 40 60 80 100
Biggest economy in the world?
China US Others Don't know
45 5 22 20 8
46 9 20 19 5
020 40 60 80 100
Which situation is better for the world?
China leads US leads Both lead together
None of the above Don't know
Fig. 3. Views of China’s status in the world vis-à-vis the USA
Note: Percentage points may not add up to 100 due to rounding. Source: Authors’ survey.
optimism, even wishful thinking, that the volatile trade relations under Trump would come
to an end with the arrival of the Biden administration and that bilateral trade would increase
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Among those who answered afrmatively about US inuence on the Chinese economy,
a small proportion (13%) in our rst wave saw the impact to be positive, while nearly
four times indicated negative (51%). This large spread is indicative of the well-publicized
damaging effects of Trump’s trade war on the Chinese economy.46 These numbers improved
in the second wave, when 19% and 45% of the respondents believed the impact to be
positive and negative, respectively, although the positive responses still fell behind those
from the 2013 PGAS, when the same question was asked under Obama.
In sum, the Chinese public perception of the bilateral relationship has deteriorated dra-
matically since 2010, a high point when 76% believed that the relationship had improved
in the past years; by early 2021, public perception had done almost a one-eighty, with 64%
saying the opposite. Consistent with this result, we found that the proportion of respon-
dents who believed the USA would never take into account China’s interests ballooned by
more than 30% from 2013. These results are expected, given the acrimonious relationship
between the two countries under the Trump administration. A more interesting nding is
that a higher proportion of Chinese respondents believed the USA had inuence over the
Chinese economy under both Trump and Biden than under Obama. This is likely due to
Trump’s trade war, which increased the Chinese public’s awareness of the interconnect-
edness of the two countries’ economies. Finally, there is a robust “Biden effect” in the
responses to all three questions—more positive or optimistic views were expressed about
the bilateral relations after the 2020 presidential election than before it.
Views of the USA and Its Role in the World
In Spring 2016, the PGAS found that nearly four out of 10 (39%) Chinese respondents
believed the USA was playing a less important leadership role in the world, while slightly
fewer (35%) thought the opposite (35%). Using the same question, we found in late 2020
and early 2021 that the gaps between the two opposing views had widened substantially,
with 70% and 66% of the respondents in the two waves of the survey saying the leader-
ship role of the USA had declined. Although Trump’s high-prole withdrawals from several
international agreements and bodies—including pulling out of the Paris Agreement, end-
ing the Iran nuclear deal, and terminating America’s WHO membership—have certainly
contributed to the shift of opinions, the view did not improve even after Biden took ofce,
suggesting some other factors may be at play.
The next two questions attempted to tease out the appeal of the US global leadership and
America’s domestic political system, which could help shed light on the reasons behind the
decline in the perception of the US leadership. Whereas 52% of Chinese respondents in the
Spring 2016 PGAS survey had condence in President Obama to do the right thing in world
affairs, in our two waves of survey before and after the recent US presidential election, 20%
and 34% expressed the same sentiment about Trump and Biden, respectively. The Biden
effect was apparent, but there was still a nearly 20% difference from the 2016 response.
In addition to having less condence in a US president’s handling of world affairs, only
29% and 38% of respondents in the two waves of our survey believed the US government
respected the freedom of its own people. Once again, opinions changed for the better after
Biden took ofce, but they remained a far cry from the 61% positive response in the 2016
PGAS survey.
46 Analysts believe that the impact of the trade war on the Chinese economy is “pretty major,” as Chinese
exports to the US dropped 12% in 2019, and total industrial output growth in the year also fell to its lowest
level in 17 years. See Reuters, “China Says It Needs ‘Arduous Efforts’ to Meet 2019 Industrial Output Goal,” 23
July, 2019,
goal.html. Also Tanner Brown, “China Exports to US Fall as Trade War Bites,MarketWatch, 5 October 2019,
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In sum, compared with 2016, there has been a signicant increase in the belief among
Chinese citizens that the USA is playing a less important role in the world, and corre-
spondingly, a steep drop in condence that a US president would handle world affairs
appropriately. Moreover, the low proportion of respondents who believed the US govern-
ment respected its own people hinted at scepticism about the gap between reality and ideal.
While the Chinese respondents might not have had the same understanding of “freedom”
as Americans do,47 the concept has been central to the appeal of American democracy over
Chinese authoritarianism. In 2020, the world witnessed the protests against police brutality
and racism in the USA after the murder of George Floyd, as well as the US government’s
poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in the world’s largest number of
reported deaths. These events revealed challenges in US domestic politics and governance
that went beyond a particular administration and likely surprised or even shocked many of
the Chinese respondents.48
Views of China’s Status in the World Vis-à-vis the USA
We now turn to the Chinese public’s evaluations of China’s position in the world vis-à-vis
the USA. Chinese citizens have become much more condent about their country’s economic
status since 2016. In the late 2020 survey wave, 65% of the respondents saw their country
as the “world’s leading economy,49 and 64% of respondents in the second wave in early
2021 concurred. The PGAS asked the same question annually between 2013 and 2016, and
the perception of the Chinese public during those years was steady: around 29% consis-
tently thought China was the leading economy, while around 45% consistently thought the
USA was. There was a roughly 35% increase in the perception that China was the leading
economy, while those who chose the USA dropped by more than 20%. Correspondingly,
compared with 2016, the percentage who chose a third country or “don’t know” shrank
In addition to replicating the PGAS’s “leading economy” question, we asked a new ques-
tion about which country is the “world’s largest economy,50 commonly measured by gross
domestic product (GDP). Since GDP is a concept more unambiguously measurable than
“leading economy,” this question explores to what extent the respondents were aware that
the USA remains the largest economy based on this metric.51 We found that 53% of the
respondents—the same in both waves—thought China is now the world’s largest economy.
The proportion of those who believed China was the leading economy was about 10%
larger than those who believed China was the largest economy, suggesting that even some
of those who were aware that China was not the largest economy still believed their coun-
try was already playing a leading role in the world economy. Perhaps the widely reported
strong recovery of the Chinese economy from the COVID-19 pandemic to become the only
major economy that grew in 2020 further contributed to such a perception.52
Our nal question addressed a key policy-relevant matter: the Chinese public’s willing-
ness to see their country as leading the world. In our rst wave, 45% of the respondents
chose China as the leading power, and another 22% chose China and the USA leading
together. In total, over two-thirds of the Chinese believed China was ready to lead the
47 Peng Hu, “Popular Understanding of Democracy in Contemporary China,” Democratization, Vol. 25, No.
8 (2018), pp. 1441–59.
48 Zhaoyin Feng, “George Floyd Death: China Takes a Victory Lap over US Protests,BBC News, 5 June
49 This is translated from “引领世界经济” in Chinese.
50 This is translated from “世界最大经济体” in Chinese.
51 China is the largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis, a much less commonly used metric.
52 Jonathan Cheng, “China Is the Only Major Economy to Report Economic Growth for 2020,” The
Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2021,
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14 The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, Vol. 00, No. 0.
world, at least jointly with the USA. This pattern held for the second wave, with 46%
choosing a Chinese leadership and 20% a China–US joint leadership.
In sum, almost two-thirds of the Chinese public believed their country to be the world’s
leading economy, and just over half believed it to be the largest economy, even though in
reality, that spot is still occupied by the USA. Well over 40% also believed the world would
be better off with China as the leading power, but one-fth of our respondents chose both
countries leading the world as the best scenario. This offers an interesting contrast to the
American public’s response to the same question in the spring 2020 PGAS survey, which
found that 91% of Americans preferred the USA to be the world’s leading power, and 0%
chose both countries leading together.53 Finally, unlike in the previous two sections, there
was no “Biden effect” in this section, as responses to all three questions were nearly identical
across the two waves.
Effects of Individual Attributes on Attitudes
How did respondents’ individual attributes inuence their views? In this section, we present
results from our analysis of four attributes that we found most interesting to examine in
the context of the Chinese public: age cohort (born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s and
later),54 education (with or without college degree), nationalism, and ties to the USA. The
inclusion of the rst three should be intuitive, and they allow us to compare our results
with those from existing studies on Chinese public opinion.55 We added “ties to the US”
as a fourth factor to examine whether more direct and individualized experiences with the
USA led to systematically different attitudes among our respondents. The idea is based on
contact theory, which has received attention in recent studies of Chinese perceptions of
foreign countries.56
We estimated a series of logistic regressions for every question in the survey, controlling
for all the socioeconomic characteristics in Table 1. Below, we elaborate on how these
attributes help predict respondents’ evaluations of the bilateral relations, condence in
the US president, and views of China’s position in the world vis-à-vis the USA. Figure 4
report average marginal effects of the four attributes, which are calculated as the average of
changes in predicted probabilities for one unit of change in the attribute of interest, using
estimates from the logistic regression models. Results from the full analyses can be found
in the online appendix.
A recent study found that younger Chinese tend to hold more favorable views of the USA.57
Our ndings point to the opposite. Many of the respondents in the youngest cohort came of
age during the Trump administration, which likely contributed to their more negative views
of the USA. Specically, on the evaluation of bilateral relations, compared to those born in
the 1960s and earlier, those born in the 1990s and later (the “post-90ers”) were about 9%
53 Laura Silver, et al., “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” Pew Research
Center, 21 April 2020,
54 Respondents born in the 1960s or earlier are the reference category.
55 Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising? Evidence from Beijing,” International Security, Vol.
41, No. 3 (2017), pp. 7–43; Donghui Wang, et al., “In the Eyes of the Beholder: How China and the U.S. See
Each Other,” Journal of Contemporary China (5 July 2021),;
Xiaojun Li, et al., “Chinese Citizens’ Trust in Japan and South Korea: Findings from a Four-City Survey,
International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 (2016), pp. 778–89.
56 Wang, et al., “In the Eyes of the Beholder”; Dong Wang, et al., “The Effect of Imagined Social Contact on
Chinese Students’ Perceptions of Japanese People,” Journal of Conict Resolution, Vol. 65, No. 1 (2021), pp.
57 Wang, et al., “In the Eyes of the Beholder.
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China-US relations is getting worse
US considers Chinese interests
US has large impact on Chinese economy
US has positive impact on Chinese economy
US is less important in the world
Have confidence in US president
US respects its people's freedom
China is the biggest economy
China is the leading economy
China/China-US leadership is better for the world
-.5 0.5 -.5 0.5 -.5 0.5 -.5 0.5
Post-90ers University + Nationalism US ties
Fig. 4. Effects of individual attributes on attitudes
Note: The dots are average marginal effects and the bars represent 95% condence intervals. Full estimation results
available in the online appendix. Source: Authors’ survey.
less likely to say that the USA cares about China’s interests when making foreign policies
and 5% less likely to say that the USA has a positive inuence on the Chinese economy.
Moreover, compared to the oldest cohort, the post-90ers were 16% less likely to report
condence in the US president.
Similar to the post-90ers, the post-80ers—i.e., those born in the 1980s—were 6% less
condent in the US president than respondents in the oldest age cohort. However, a nd-
ing unique to this group is that they were 9% and 10% more likely to consider China
the world’s leading and largest economy, respectively. One plausible explanation for this
heightened national pride is that these respondents were the rst to experience China’s Patri-
otic Education Campaign during their formative years, an initiative designed to “boost the
nation’s spirit, enhance its cohesion, foster its self-esteem and sense of pride;”58 at the same
time, they had not been as exposed to the outside world as the post-90ers, born in the age
of the Internet.
Next, we examine educational background. When evaluating the bilateral relationship,
respondents with college degrees were 8% more likely to say the relationship had dete-
riorated, 6% less likely to say the USA considered Chinese interests, and 5% less likely to
say the USA had a positive inuence on the Chinese economy. When evaluating America’s
role in the world, college graduates were 8% more likely to say the USA was playing a less
important role in the world.
58 Suisheng Zhao, “A State-Led Nationalism: The Patriotic Education Campaign in Post-Tiananmen China,
Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1998), p. 293.
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16 The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, Vol. 00, No. 0.
Not surprisingly, higher education is associated with more realistic understandings of
China’s economy. College graduates were 13% and 5% less likely to say the Chinese
economy was the world’s largest and leading economy, respectively. Consistent with this
assessment, the more educated seemed less sanguine about the idea of Chinese global leader-
ship, being 6% less likely to endorse Chinese or China–US joint leadership. In other words,
this group were more subdued about Chinese global leadership, likely due to a sense that
China is not yet ready for the role, a view shared by many international relation scholars in
Following existing studies,60 we constructed a normalized measure of nationalism based on
respondents’ answers to ve standard questions designed to tap nationalistic sentiments.61
Overall, the ndings here are consistent with conventional wisdom, and the substantive
effects are large. On questions regarding America’s role in the world, compared to the least
nationalistic respondents (those who scored 0 on the nationalism measure), nationalists
(scoring 1 on the nationalism measure) were 30% more likely to think America’s role in the
world had declined, 27% were less likely to have condence in the US president to do the
right thing for world affairs, and 40% were less likely to say that the USA respected the
freedom of its own people.
Nationalists also took pride in China’s economic success and endorsed China playing a
leadership role internationally. Specically, the nationalists were about 49% more likely to
believe that the Chinese economy was the largest in the world and 55% more likely to say
that China was the world’s leading economy. They were also 40% less likely to say that the
USA had a large or fair amount of inuence on the Chinese economy. Finally, the nationalists
were about 28% more likely to favor Chinese or China–US joint global leadership. Taken
together, nationalistic individuals were far less positive about the USA and more condent
in their own country.
Ties to the US
Finally, we examine whether those who had closer connections with and personal experi-
ences in the USA displayed more positive attitudes toward the USA. The idea is based on
intergroup contact theory,62 which posits that personal connections and experiences can
provide an individual with a more nuanced and informed understanding of an outgroup
than the mainstream narrative. To test this possibility, we identied those in the sample
who had visited or studied in the USA, or who had close relatives (parents or children)
working and/or studying in the USA.
There is evidence that personal connections and experiences do matter in mitigating neg-
ative views of the USA.63 In our survey, respondents with close US contacts or personal
experiences through work or study were 7% more likely to report condence in the US
president and 7% more likely to say the US government respected the freedom of the Amer-
ican people. Furthermore, these respondents were 5% more likely to believe the USA would
59 Feng, et al., How China Sees the World.
60 E.g., Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising?”; Jessica Chen Weiss, “How Hawkish is the Chinese Public?
Another Look at ‘Rising Nationalism’ and Chinese Foreign Policy,Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 28,
No. 119 (2019), 679–95,
61 We provide the questions and coding scheme in the online appendix.
62 Thomas F. Pettigrew, “Intergroup Contact Theory,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 1 (1998),
pp. 65–85.
63 A recent survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation similarly found that Chinese citizens who, “in the past
ve years, have either traveled to the United States or have a friend or family member living there are signicantly
more likely to have a positive opinion of the US.” Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray, “Democracy in Disarray:
How the World Sees the U.S. and Its Example,” Eurasia Group Foundation, May 2021,
content/uploads/2021/05/Modeling-Democracy.pdf, p. 8.
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pay attention to China’s interests when conducting its foreign policies and 4% more likely
to say the US impact on Chinese economic conditions was positive. Respondents with US
ties were also about 5% more likely to say that China was the world’s leading and largest
economy. These ndings suggest that some of the Chinese public have positive views of
both the USA and China.
Interestingly, the post-90ers were also more likely to have US experiences (about 16%
more likely than the other age groups in the survey). Recall that this group as a whole held
a more negative view about the USA. These two patterns are not contradictory; rather, it
means that among the post-90ers, those with US experiences held more positive views of
the USA than those without such experiences. For example, the post-90ers as a group were,
on average, less likely to express condence in the US president; however, those with US
experiences were about 10% more likely to express condence in the US president compared
with the rest in that group.
Gaps between Public Perceptions and State Rhetoric
Earlier in the discussion of Chinese public opinion and foreign policy, we referred to the
question of whether the Chinese public can develop opinions unltered by state propaganda.
We argued that the propaganda effect is not perfect. This can be corroborated by ndings
from our survey, as well as their comparisons with others’ studies; together, they show
that changes in Chinese public opinion have often diverged from ofcial narratives and
were likely spontaneous reactions to external events and shocks. We discuss such gaps in
Chinese public opinion and state rhetoric in this section.
Since President Trump initiated a trade war against China in March 2018, tensions
between the two governments began to escalate, reected not only in the tariffs they
levied on each other but also in government rhetoric.64 Yet, when the Eurasia Group
probed Chinese opinions on the USA in October 2019, only 17% of the respondents
reported having explicitly unfavourable feelings towards the USA. This number more than
quadrupled within a year. We specically included in our survey a question asking Chi-
nese respondents to express their feelings about a range of developed nations, including
the USA, close US allies such as Australia and the UK, and many continental Euro-
pean countries.65 Seventy-seven percent of Chinese respondents expressed an unfavourable
view of the USA. It is difcult to attribute this drastic deterioration in Chinese percep-
tions entirely to propaganda work. More likely, Trump’s rhetoric and policies toward
China in 2020 had a much bigger role than propaganda in the worsening of Chinese
The gaps between public perceptions and state rhetoric are also evident in how other
countries were viewed. For example, negative feeling toward Australia was 30% less than
toward the USA, despite the rapid deterioration of ofcial relations between China and
Australia around the time of our survey due to a range of contentious issues between
the two countries.66 Similarly, negativity toward Britain was 31% less than toward the
USA, even though Beijing had been criticizing the British government for almost two
years for its support of the Hong Kong protests. Moreover, there was a wide range
of variation in the Chinese public’s attitudes toward the continental European countries
64 Ana Swanson, “U.S. and China Expand Trade War as Beijing Matches Trump’s Tariffs,The New York
Times, 15 June 2018,; Lily Kuo,
“‘The Fool Builds Walls’: China Takes Aim at Trump Trade War Threats, The Guardian, 18 June 2018,
65 Adam Y. Liu, et al., “What Do Chinese People Think of Developed Countries?” The Diplomat, 18 December
66 Natasha Kassam, “Great Expectations: The Unraveling of the Australia-China Relationship,” The Brook-
ings Institution, 20 June 2020,
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18 The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, Vol. 00, No. 0.
that did not necessarily reect how the respective bilateral relations were reported in
Additionally, there is a broad consensus among China watchers in the USA that Chi-
nese leaders and intellectual elites believed the USA to be in decline in the wake of the
2008 global nancial crisis and that this view has inuenced China’s policy toward the
USA.68 If this is indeed the case, then a comparison of our survey results and those from
the PGAS suggests that the Chinese public did not share this assessment of the USA as late
as 2016. By the time of our 2020 survey, those who viewed the US role in the world as less
important had increased dramatically, from 39% to 70%; in the same period, those who
were not condent in the US president had also increased from 10% to 41%. The results
again suggest that the attitudes of the Chinese public may not closely track ofcial or elite
Finally, as we analysed above, there are interesting variations in public attitudes that are
associated with respondents’ personal attributes. Most importantly, different age cohorts
had different attitudes, with the youngest generation (the post-90ers) having more negative
attitudes toward the USA. In addition, personal contact (travel, study, close family living in
the USA) led to more positive views of the USA. These ndings suggest that in the presence
of the same propaganda, different individuals may develop different attitudes.69
When Ronald Reagan visited China in 1984, he told Chinese college students that “friend-
ship between people is the basis of friendship between governments.70 Today, increasing
rivalry between the two countries has signicantly weakened, if not eliminated, that basis
in China–US relations. While numerous public opinion polls conducted in the USA have
shown deteriorating American public opinion of China, our two surveys are the rst to
reveal that a similar trend has been developing in Chinese public opinion toward the
USA. Trump’s trade war and hostile rhetoric toward China, combined with Chinese obser-
vations of mass protests against systemic racism in the USA as well as the 6 January
2021 Capitol riot, have likely prompted the Chinese public to re-evaluate the state of
the bilateral relationship, China’s status in the world vis-à-vis the USA, and the USA as a
Our survey reveals a number of broad trends. First, there has been a signicant decline in
positive views of the USA from a baseline of rather strong goodwill prior to 2016, following
drastic deterioration in the China–US relationship during the Trump presidency. Second, the
public perceives the USA to be in decline and playing a less important role in the world, while
China is perceived to be in a stronger economic position vis-à-vis the USA and poised to
play a greater leadership role internationally, either by itself or alongside the USA. Finally,
while Chinese respondents’ evaluations of the bilateral relationship and of the USA evinced
67 Adam Y. Liu, et al., “What Do Chinese People Think of Developed Countries?”
68 Jude Blanchette, “Beijing’s Vision of American Decline,Politico, 11 March 2021, https://www.politico.
69 A recent study similarly challenges the common assumption that China’s growing power has fostered
a generation of youths with unanimous support for more assertive Chinese foreign policy. See Qin Pang,
et al., “China’s Growing Power Makes Its Youth Hawkish? Evidence from the Chinese Youth’s Attitudes
toward the US and Japan,” Journal of Contemporary China (26 December 2021),
70 Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at Fudan University in Shanghai, China,” Ronald Reagan Presidential
Libraries and Museum, 30 April 1984,
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The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, Vol. 00, No. 0. 19
a “Biden bump,”71 their condence in China’s strength and its place in the world remained
consistent across the two waves of the survey.
There are also more nuanced ndings that cut against common assumptions about the
attitudes of the younger generation and the effects of overseas experiences on public atti-
tudes. First, we nd that the youngest generation in our sample, i.e., the post-90ers, held
more negative views of the USA on average than the older generations, in contrast to nd-
ings from a survey conducted in 2015.72 This difference highlights the dynamic nature of
public opinion, where the denition of “young people” changes every few years. Second,
those who had ties to the USA through personal contacts or experiences had more posi-
tive views about the country, and this result held even among the post-90ers. Interestingly,
those who had ties to the USA were also slightly more likely to believe that China was the
leading and largest economy in the world. In other words, positive views of the two coun-
tries were not mutually exclusive, suggesting that personal experiences with the USA can
produce more positive feelings toward the country without undermining pride in one’s own
These results have important policy implications. In particular, direct or indirect
experiences of the USA through travelling, studying, or working there do seem to
promote goodwill toward the country, lending support for policies that promote the
cross-border ow of people. Moreover, as the post-90ers enter into leadership roles in
Chinese society over the coming decades, their views of the world and China–US rela-
tions will inuence numerous policy areas. Therefore, intensifying competition between
the two most powerful countries today will have a long-lasting effect not just through
the policies adopted but also by inuencing the world views of the future generations of
The patterns revealed in our study are unlikely to change in a short period, although
public opinion everywhere can be uid. Already, the Spring 2021 PGAS shows that public
perceptions in advanced economies have turned more positive toward the USA since Pres-
ident Biden took ofce.73 However, a consensus seems to be emerging—both inside and
outside China—that Biden has largely continued Trump’s China policy, albeit with a key
difference in strategy: instead of going it alone, Biden has tried to build a broader coalition to
counter China’s rise.74 Correspondingly, while the Chinese public and analysts had initially
anticipated (or hoped for) a more moderate China policy from the Biden administration,
that expectation has since been revised, suggesting the “Biden bump” we found in the sec-
ond wave may dissipate over time. Future research can ascertain whether or not this is
indeed the case.
71 The “Biden bump” was also observed in most other countries, with opinions of the US rebounding in Spring
2021. See Laura Silver, “China’s International Image Remains Broadly Negative as Views of the U.S. Rebound,
Pew Research Center, 30 June 2021,
72 Wang et al., “In the Eyes of the Beholder.
73 See
74 Alex Leary and Bob Davis, “Biden’s China Policy Is Emerging—and It Looks a Lot Like Trump’s,Wall
Street Journal, 10 June 2021,
like-trumps-11623330000. Also see Elise Labott, “When the White House Changed Hands, It Changed Tone but
Not Policies,” Financial Post, 22 September 2021,
legacy-foreign-policy-aukus/; Asma Khalid, “Biden Is Keeping Key Parts of Trump’s China Trade Policy. Here’s
Why,NPR, 4 October 2021,
trumps-china-trade-policy-heres-why; Global Times, “Biden Extends Trump’s China Policy, More Pre-
dictable Yet More Chill: Global Times Editorial,” 28 April, 2021,
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20 The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2022, Vol. 00, No. 0.
Conict of interest statement. None declared.
Funding from the faculty Start-Up Grant for Adam Y. Liu provided by the National
University of Singapore.
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... The second dimension of leadership in public relations that was more prominent in this study was communication knowledge management. Fang et al., (2022) suggest that knowledge management is both a goal and a process. As an outcome or goal, it focuses on sharing information for the organization's benefit (Engel, 2012). ...
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... .Fang, Li, and Liu (2022),Byun, Kim, and Li (2021) andLü, Scheve, and Slaughter (2012), however, are notable examples of public opinion studies conducted in Mainland China.4. I further include a manipulation check, in which I ask "To what extent do you believe that your country's economy is too dependent on other countries?". ...
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Globalization has been the catalyst of world economic development in the past decades. However, the phenomenon has recently been severely challenged by a wave of deglobalization. Within this new trend, the conflict between the United States (US) and China has attracted the attention of scholars from various fields because of the two countries' significance in the world economy. In this study, we focus on the higher education sector, which is highly relevant to globalization, and explore the factors that may affect Chinese college students' attitudes towards US universities, including country image, cultural openness, consumer animosity and perceived quality. In particular, we distinguish between cognitive and affective animosity and test their different impacts on students' attitudes. The results show that students' perception of the US's image positively influences attitudes towards the country's universities thanks to the mediation of perceived quality. Moreover, cultural openness and cognitive animosity are positively related to attitudes, whereas affective animosity exerts a negative impact on attitudes. The implications and limitations of this study are also discussed.
This chapter surveys and summarizes chapters in this volume in dealing with key developments since 2019, including the Hong Kong Protests, the pandemic crisis, and security concerns and interest calculation of three main players—China, Taiwan, and the US. Additionally, the examination of the nuances, intrigues, and complexities of these issues in each player’s policy deliberation and decision illustrates several thematic implications concerning the primacy of politics even in public health issues, the interconnectivity between domestic politics and external affairs, and each actor’s security predicaments for regime stability and economic prosperity.KeywordsAnti-extradition billBidenChinaContainmentCOVID-19 pandemicCross-Strait relationsDual deterrenceEngagementHong KongStrategic ambiguityStrategic clarityTaiwanTaiwan independenceTrumpTsai Ing-wenUSUS-China-Taiwan triangleUS CongressXi Jinping
Although many political leaders communicate with foreign leaders and publics through social media, limited knowledge exists concerning its impact on global travel. However, signaling theory suggests that a political leader’s social media communication signals their honest feelings regarding a country. In response, that country’s residents counter signal via travel behaviors toward the country whose leader made the remarks. When a political leader’s communication is positive toward a country, it is called social media diplomacy (SMD). Comparatively, negative communication is called damaging political rhetoric (ANTI-SMD). Furthermore, this study examined whether a trip’s purpose moderates SMD and ANTI-SMD effects on global travel. Resultantly, SARIMAX time-series modeling found SMD had positive effects on pleasure travel flow and no impact on business or student travelers, while ANTI-SMD caused pleasure travelers to avoid a destination.
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Some of the most enduring and dangerous territorial disputes often involve claims of historical ownership by at least one side of a dispute. Why does historical ownership lead to more hardened bargaining stances than in other territorial disputes? Do such uncompromising positions lead to more military conflict? We investigate these questions in this study. After developing a theoretical argument for how historical ownership may lead to a perception of territorial indivisibility, we test the hypotheses derived from the theory with a survey experiment implemented in China. We find that a historical ownership treatment increases the number of respondents who view the indivisible outcome of a hypothetical dispute as the only acceptable outcome. Furthermore, those who perceive a territory to be indivisible are more likely to favor economic sanctions and military solutions to the dispute and are much less likely to support bilateral negotiation or arbitration by an international organization.
With China–U.S. relations becoming simultaneously more integrated and complex, it is all the more important to understand the nature and determinants of reciprocal perceptions between Chinese and American publics. Using nationally representative, bi-national public opinion surveys, this article compares the attitudes of Chinese toward the U.S. with those of Americans toward China. The article gives primary attention to generalized attitudes toward each country but also studies domain-specific attitudes. The results suggest that Chinese hold more-favorable attitudes toward the U.S. than do Americans toward China. Chinese and Americans also differ on domain-specific issues. Chinese place greater importance on sovereignty issues and territorial disputes, while Americans give greater attention to universal values such as human rights and environmental degradation.
Elections have been theorized to bolster compliance with authoritarian regimes by strengthening their coercive capacity, their ability to co-opt, and their legitimacy. While a growing body of research supports the coercive and co-optive functions of these elections, there is little systematic empirical evidence regarding elections’ contributions to the legitimacy of autocrats. This article draws on survey data from eight authoritarian countries in the Arab world to show that respondents who perceive elections as freer and fairer are more likely to express acceptance of the regime's right to govern and less likely to participate in political protests, even when they disapprove of the regime's performance. In addition, a survey experiment implemented in Egypt and Morocco provides causal evidence that perceptions of electoral quality impact legitimacy beliefs and expressed willingness to protest. The findings indicate the importance of studying how authoritarian institutions influence popular beliefs about the legitimacy of autocratic rulers.
In recent years, Beijing has significantly increased its support for UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs). Of the five permanent members of the Security Council, China is currently the largest troop-contributing country and the second-largest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. What is the view of the Chinese public on its country’s involvement in peacekeeping operations? We investigate the question using a public opinion survey experiment conducted in China. Our main findings are, first, that respondents showed a high level of support generally for China’s participation in peacekeeping operations but highest of all when China performed a leadership role. Secondly, China’s particular interest in a host country did not affect the degree of public support for China’s involvement; however, respondents did perceive broad benefits to China’s international reputation from such activities. Thirdly, although there was a similar level of support for China’s participation in peacekeeping whether the mission was authorised by the United Nations or by the African Union, neither was seen as a substitute for host state consent. Finally, respondents generally preferred China to make personnel (military and police) contributions in addition to financial contributions. These findings provide important insights into the domestic motivations for Beijing’s future peacekeeping policy and attendant constraints in this regard.
Social identity theory (SIT) suggests that perceived identity difference between groups predicts to intergroup conflict, including interstate conflict. Contact theory suggests that social contact between groups can help reduce intergroup conflict. Contact theory, however, has not traditionally focused on perceived identity difference, and it has not been tested much on real-world interstate conflicts. Employing an experimental design, our study tests for the effects of imagined social contact on Chinese students’ generally malign perceptions of identity difference with Japanese people. We find that imagined contact reduces key perceptions of difference by reducing both perceived Japanese malignity and perceived Chinese benignity. This suggests that social contact helps produce new hybrid in-group. By employing SIT, our findings provide a new microfoundation for contact theory, suggest an important process in the creation of security communities, and provide a proof of concept for public policies aimed at large-scale cultural exchanges.
The aim of this chapter is to provide an epistemological argument for why public reasons matter for political legitimacy. A key feature of the public reason conception of legitimacy is that political decisions must be justified to the citizens. They must be justified in terms of reasons that are either shared qua reasons or that, while not shared qua reasons, support the same political decision. Call the relevant reasons public reasons. Critics of the public reason conception, by contrast, argue that political legitimacy requires justification simpliciter—political decisions must be justified in terms of the reasons that apply. Call the relevant reasons objective reasons. The debate between defenders and critics of a public reason conception of political legitimacy thus focuses on whether objective reasons or public reasons are the right basis for the justification of political decisions. I will grant to critics of a public reason conception that there are objective reasons and allow that such reasons can affect the legitimacy of political decisions. But I will show, focusing on the epistemic circumstances of political decision-making, that it does not follow that the justification of those decisions is necessarily in terms of those reasons.
How do government rhetoric and propaganda affect mass reactions in international crises? Using two scenario-based survey experiments in China, one hypothetical and one that selectively reminds respondents of recent events, we assess how government statements and propaganda impact Chinese citizens’ approval of their government's performance in its territorial and maritime disputes. We find evidence that citizens disapprove more of inaction after explicit threats to use force, suggesting that leaders can face public opinion costs akin to audience costs in an authoritarian setting. However, we also find evidence that citizens approve of bluster—vague and ultimately empty threats—suggesting that talking tough can provide benefits, even in the absence of tough action. In addition, narratives that invoke future success to justify present restraint increase approval, along with frames that emphasize a shared history of injustice at the hands of foreign powers.
By taking the official state ideology into consideration, this article seeks to contribute to the study of public opinion of democracy under non-democratic regimes by analysing both qualitative and quantitative evidence collected in China. An examination of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s discourse on democracy reveals that the CCP endorses popular sovereignty and political participation while denying political contestation. Meanwhile, the concept of democracy can have three distinctive meanings among ordinary Chinese: democracy as freedom, democracy as political participation to ensure government accountability, and democracy as good socio-economic performance. Survey data show that the majority of informed Chinese respondents treat democracy as political participation to ensure government accountability, which indicates that Chinese understanding of democracy has reached to a certain degree of consensus that is closer to universally-shared idea of democracy rather than being culturally distinctive.
China is widely viewed as a global powerhouse that has achieved a remarkable economic transformation with little political change. Less well known is that China's leaders have also implemented far-reaching governance reforms designed to promote government transparency and increase public participation in official policymaking. What are the motivations behind these reforms and, more importantly, what impact are they having? This puzzle lies at the heart of Chinese politics and could dictate China's political trajectory for years to come. This extensive collaborative study not only documents the origins and scope of these reforms across China, but offers the first systematic assessment by quantitatively and qualitatively analyzing the impact of participation and transparency on important governance outcomes. Comparing across provinces and over time, the authors argue that the reforms are resulting in lower corruption and enhanced legal compliance, but these outcomes also depend on a broader societal ecosystem that includes an active media and robust civil society. Offers a detailed study of governance reform in a single-party state, shedding new light on authoritarian institutions Brings together a team of experts from both in and outside China to offer new information and place Chinese governance in a comparative perspective Cutting-edge quantitative and qualitative methodology provides a model of integrated research design.