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Will a signed trade deal ease U.S.-China tensions? Probably not.

White House tweets and comments also shape how Chinese people view the United States.

- January 2, 2020

President Trump said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping will sign a U.S.-China trade deal on Jan. 15. Since October, negotiators from both countries have revealed details of a bilateral trade agreement that reportedly includes Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural products and U.S. services, plus China’s pledge to protect intellectual property and refrain from currency manipulation.

In addition, China agreed to lift additional tariffs on U.S. goods and gradually open its financial sector to foreign investors, including banking, securities and insurance. In return, the U.S. government will roll back some of the tariffs imposed against Chinese goods.

But how have these developments affected the bigger picture in U.S.-China relations, and Chinese public perceptions of the United States?

Despite the apparent de-escalation in the U.S.-China trade war, relations between Washington and Beijing remain tense. The United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies for buying Iranian oil and prohibited Huawei and other companies from acquiring U.S. parts and components without approval.

In the education sector, the FBI has urged U.S. universities to monitor Chinese students and scholars. Many U.S. universities closed Chinese-sponsored Confucius Institutes, concerned about their negative influences on academic freedom. In the political arena, China accused the United States of being involved in Hong Kong’s protests, while U.S. officials have criticized China’s actions against free passage in the South China Sea and labeled China a “strategic competitor.”

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So how do people in China really feel about the United States?

Chinese images of the United States are complicated

In general, popular attitudes in China toward the United States are split. For example, a 2005 survey in Xiamen showed that the public was very positive about U.S. achievements in science and technology, education and the environment — but more negative about U.S. foreign policy toward China and the world.

The balance of positive and negative assessments varies with events in U.S.-China relations. The 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, led to anti-U.S. protests nationwide, and a Beijing survey that year showed a significant decline in the U.S. national image.

Chinese media also play a big role

Public understanding of international affairs is often very limited — particularly in China, where most of the 1.4 billion citizens have no direct experience with the United States. Their perceptions of the United States come mainly from information provided by the media, which is subject to Chinese government censorship.

The Chinese labor force has an average education level of about nine years, which means much of the Chinese public lacks a high level of political sophistication. The result is that a sizable portion of the Chinese public tends to defer to the government’s position. In surveys, many respondents indicate that they “don’t know” — although this proportion is somewhat lower among Chinese youth.

China’s Internet leaves few alternative sources of information

The rise of the Internet has completely changed political communication in China. In 2019, China had some 840 million Internet users — but relatively few in China access information from outside sources. The 2015 China Urban and Rural Governance Survey, for instance, found that less than 1 percent of respondents used foreign Internet sources as their main source of information.

Nonetheless, citizens in China have offered differing views on the trade war, including debates over free vs. fair trade, the rationality of U.S. government policy, and China’s own economic problems. But as U.S.-China relations grew increasingly tense, the domestic policy space for these debates has shrunk considerably. With Chinese government editorials proclaiming that China must prepare for a long struggle against the United States, few Chinese voices express positive views of America.

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It’s not just about U.S. tariffs

Even if the United States rolls back tariffs on Chinese goods, moves to reduce economic, scientific and educational exchanges are likely to reduce sources of positive views of the United States.

Since the late Qing dynasty, millions of Chinese have gone to the United States to study. My research, for example, reveals that Chinese students and scholars who return from the United States have very positive feelings toward it. They understand the United States through their own experiences there, and convey these positive feelings to Chinese public, and this has contributed to a positive U.S. national image, especially with regard to achievements in education, science and technology.

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There’s fallout from U.S. hard line rhetoric

But political tensions between the United States and China, along with the demographic and economic changes in China, have meant many U.S. colleges now report a decrease in students from China. The Chinese government has also warned students about the risk of studying in the United States. These shifts ultimately will affect not only the number of returning students who head back to China, but also their feelings toward the United States.

Other people-to-people connections — like working in a U.S.-invested company in China, traveling to the United States and buying U.S. goods and services — no doubt will contribute to a more favorable U.S. national image. But recent hard-line rhetoric by the U.S. government — and two U.S. bills related to human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang — are difficult for the Chinese government to ignore.

Beijing’s response to U.S. rhetoric is to take a more nationalistic and tough stance, to show that it protects Chinese public interests from foreign pressure. Even if the trade negotiations continue to bear fruit, the overall image of the United States in China will face continuing challenges.

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Donglin Han is a professor in the School of International Studies and a research associate in the National Academy of Development and Strategy, Renmin University of China.