Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, roughly two-thirds of American people say they have an unfavorable view of China, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted in March and released in late April. It’s the most negative rating for the country since the Center began asking the question in 2005. The Eurasia Group Foundation, a U.S. based consulting firm, published a report in March found that due to implications from the coronavirus, favorable opinions of the U.S. among the Chinese public decreased by nearly 20% while unfavorable opinions increased by 11%.
The transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
Clayton Dube (CD): My name is Clayton Dube. I am the director of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California. I came to USC 14 years ago to help launch the Institute. USC decided to have a special initiative, focusing on the US-China relationship. I’ve been part of that, and it’s really been quite extraordinary. My personal ties with regard to the relationship and China, specifically, goes back to 1982. From 1980 to 1985, I lived and taught in Beijing. Since then, China has loomed very large in my life. My initial work was all in the realm of history, and specifically focusing on China's socio-economic changes over the course of the 20th and now 21st century. But now, of course, I focus primarily on this important US-China relationship.
CD: It’s really good that you’re highlighting both kinds of the popular conception of U.S.-China relations among Chinese as well as Americans, and separating that from the government to government relationship. I think that in terms of the current status, this is by far the worst relationship in my personal experience. I think in some ways, the situation is more difficult than even in 1989 when the Tiananmen crisis emerged and devastated. There’s no question that that had a big impact on American perceptions of China. There were economic sanctions, military sanctions imposed, and some of those remain in place. But I think in terms of the broader sense of how the US and China work towards our various aims, I don’t think we’ve ever been in such a difficult state since diplomatic relations were established in 1979. I would suggest that it’s at its worst since 1979.
CD: First, let me just highlight some evidence of the difficult relationship.
The militaries are no longer talking to each other in many ways, where we used to have regular dialogues, and that’s not happening now. That’s a fundamental problem government to government.
But perceptions in China have swung very much in the direction of thinking that the United States is absolutely committed to holding China down and that China's rise has caused the United States to worry and to do everything it can to hold China back.
In the United States, you've seen a major switch in public opinion. Now. Americans were most positive towards China in the spring of 1989. 72% of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they had a favorable impression of time. Just a couple of months later, with the violent crushing of student demonstrations in Beijing and elsewhere in China, that opinion plummeted. But it had gradually moved up, and so you were looking at somewhere between 40% to 55% of Americans having a positive view of China. That’s no longer the case. Today, two-thirds of Americans have a negative impression of China and that doesn’t really surprise me among older Americans. What shocks me is that younger Americans are similarly negative towards China.
I want to be clear that in terms of the negativity on the part of Americans toward China, that’s towards the Chinese government, not directly towards the Chinese people. I think that the same is true on the Chinese side. People from both countries have negative views of the other country’s government, while there’s still a mutual appreciation toward the other country’s people and culture.
I think a couple of things have brought about this change of relationship. First, China has become an economic competitor, China's economic rise is clear for all to see. That's been a good thing in many respects. Certainly, it’s a good thing for the Chinese people but also for many American companies and many American investors. We have profited from China's rise. That is very much in evidence. But now we are less complimentary, less mutually supportive and more in competition for the frontiers, artificial intelligence, robotics, things like that. And so, the American business community which used to be the staunchest supporter of warm us China relations, has turned a little sour. That's a factor.
Also within China, there had been moves towards away from greater liberalization, greater individual liberties, appreciating a larger role for civil society. There had there has been a move in an authoritarian direction, the enhanced position of the Chinese Communist Party, further limits on internet freedom further limits on freedom on campuses, things like that. And that has caused many Americans to wonder if the relationship is working out, is working in the best interests of both the United States and China. And then over the last three years, with the systematic effort in Xinjiang has led to the detention of a million people, that has truly, truly impacted popular perceptions of China.
All of these forces have led to a much more difficult state of affairs between the two countries, just when we most need these two countries to work productively and effectively together. That’s a big problem, not just for the 1.7 billion people who live in these two countries. It’s bad news for the entire planet. We need these countries to be cooperating in key areas, such as climate change, anti-piracy, dealing with a whole host of issues, and most immediately dealing with the health crisis.
CD: I think that the people of the two countries and the people of the world are right to be critical of the Chinese government and the U.S. Government. I don’t think either government has handled the stress, the crisis, especially well.
In the case of China, we saw suppressions of discussions at the beginning. Even though top leaders were aware of the threat, actions were delayed, and as a consequence, the disease probably spread more widely than it needed to. After that, once the Chinese government focused on it. They used measures that many have described as draconian but all need to acknowledge have proven effective at stopping the rapid spread of the disease, bringing it under control. And you saw some of the efficiency of the Chinese system. Once the top government is focused on it. They can mobilize all kinds of resources to build hospitals, to set up barricades to ensure all kinds of preventive measures, as well as treatment, can be provided. But for an extended period of time, the Chinese government at the local level and the national level failed, failed its people and, as a consequence, failed the greater world. But the Chinese government after that proved quite able and effective.
Now having those critical things about China, I think that we can be even more critical about the American response. It was clear to the health community, specifically the folks charged with epidemic prevention, that this was a threat and that the United States needed to mobilize. Unfortunately, that did not happen. There were failures of leadership, in terms of the White House; the president specifically described this as not a threat. In fact, he even used the word hoax at one point to describe it when it was clearly a very real phenomenon and likely to affect the United States. Before the travel restrictions, there were 700 flights a week between China and the United States. On an average day, 8,000 people come from China to the United States; on an average day, 6,000 people Americans go to China. We are completely intertwined. It was inevitable that COVID-19 would become part of the American experience, and we failed to prepare for it. There was a failure of leadership with many dimensions and causes, but there was also a failure among the people charged with responding. The notion that there could only be a single officially sanctioned teste was problem number. You can understand the desire, but when then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to develop an accurate, reliable test in a timely way and then be able to produce this so that it could begin to meet with the need, that was a giant failure. We are only now, at the end of April, starting to be able to have the number of tests that are going to be required to fully open the U.S. economy.
There were catastrophic failures in both places, and unfortunately, one of the things that have happened since then is the two governments have pointed fingers at each other more than they have worked together.
Now, COVID-19 remains a scourge and it remains a threat. We are a long way from normal in China or in the United States, so we have to wait and see. This is an in-progress look at government response.
Now, the good news is that on the science basis, there’s a lot of collaboration. Chinese scientists, American scientists, together with scientists elsewhere in the world are working together to develop effective treatments to develop a vaccine and to do these kinds of things. Also, early in the crisis, you can see the generosity of American people and American companies towards China. Now that the center of the crisis is the United States, we have seen displays of Chinese generosity, both on the individual level and company level, towards American people.
The crisis has produced a certain amount of xenophobia, misbehavior, hateful comments, ridiculous rumors and things like that, but the crisis has also brought out many things that truly are worth celebrating in Chinese humanity and American humanity. We’ve seen the worst; we have sen some of the best.
CD: I think that the US-China relationship is going to be challenging for many years to come. It is a difficult situation where these two countries really need each other, but neither country is happy that they need the other. Neither country finds the current arrangement entirely satisfactory. And so I think that we are going to have difficulty. I'm hopeful that the two governments will find more productive ways to talk to each other, rather than talking about each other. There needs to be more dialogue, more conversation, and it needs to be at many different levels. It's not enough for President Trump and President Xi to have the occasional phone call. That is not the way to nurture a healthier, more balanced, more stable relationship. You need to have much more dialogue throughout the two governments and we have to acknowledge there’ll be tensions and that we need to find ways to manage these tensions so that they don't escalate into something truly dangerous.
What individuals can and, in my opinion, should do, is to have greater exchange and to have greater contact. Some in America wish that there were fewer Chinese students coming to the United States, and I think that would be a horrific mistake. Because these students come and we, those of us live in the United States, have an opportunity to interact with them, to better understand their perspective on things and also to share our own perspectives with them. That direct personal contact is really helpful. I hope that once it becomes safe to do so, American and Chinese people continue to visit each other’s countries and continue to find ways that we can collaborate in cultural exchange. We will find ways to collaborate economically. The two markets are irresistible to businesses in both countries. The more isolated the two peoples become from each other, the easier it is for them to imagine things that are just not true about the other.
CD: We saw some truly extraordinary work done by news organizations in China, as well as news organizations outside of China. The news organization Caixin, to my mind, did by far the best reporting. We also saw citizen journalists and other mechanisms like Fang Fang who produced her daily diary and distributed that through social media. That happened in the early stage. Caixin continued throughout. They would publish things and some of the things would disappear after they were published, but they did reporting. Caixin came up with significant timelines and carried out interviews with Chinese doctor Li Wenliang and others.
One the American side, there was a great deal of excellent reporting as well. Some journalists for American news organizations went to Wuhan and reported on the Chinese government was responding to the threat. Whether there were failures, it seems to the principal one is the one that you’ve already highlighted. It was clear very early on that asymptomatic transmission was not just possible but actually common. This should have been really explained to the American public much more thoroughly than it was by the news organizations or by our public health professionals. That’s why it took so long for finally a recommendation to come out, saying even if you are not sick and have no symptoms, you need to wear a mask when you’re in contact with other people as a means of reducing the possibility of asymptomatic transmission. That was something that was very slow to be appreciated in the United States. Part of that difficulty is that it wasn’t something that was as explained as clearly as sharply as it could have been. Some American people still do not fully appreciate the use of face mask as a prophylactic health measure to show concern for others.
News organizations benefit from diversity, and this is a wonderful example of that. If your news organization has people in it, who are of Chinese ethnicity, who speak the language, have the connections, or understand a bit more of the culture and how things are done and work, that offers you an opportunity to open that winder, open that door to get useful perspective on these developments. I think that news organizations need to deliberately, systematically increase the diversity of their newsrooms. That means bringing in people have different ethnic backgrounds. It means bringing in people with a greater variety of language skills, and it also means bringing in both women and men to do this because clearly the world needs better coverage.
One example of this came with the Wall Street Journal, which published an op-ed, titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia." That was a lazy title. I think there was greater offense taken than probably warranted, If you more fully understand the history of that, and the fact that Chinese people themselves have used this language, including health professionals, have used this to say we need to battle this kind of thing. But it was a lazy title for an article that wasn’t real About the COVID crisis, it was more about debt and things like that. There was pushback from the Beijing Bureau. There were people who understood how this headline would play, and they pushed back against it. But they were overruled. Now, the Chinese government’s response really had nothing to do with the issue, saying this is racist and bad as an example of the Wall Street Journal being insensitive China, and later they expelled three WSJ journalists. Then, the U.S. government put limits on Chinese journalists from state media. Soon the Chinese government said it would expel some American journalists from the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post in the New York Times.
My point is simply that news organizations benefit themselves by increasing the diversity of their newsroom. And, unfortunately, right when we need as much reliable, timely Information is possible from China, we have this journalism war between the two governments that sent journalists from the other country back home. This is essential limiting access to information.