Polls say Americans report record low opinions of China. Are the surveys measuring racism?

This year, Americans said they really, really don’t like China.

In fact, if you go by the polls, they’ve never liked it less.

But what does that even mean?

When asked how they felt toward China, the vast majority of Americans surveyed required no further detail before giving definitive answers like “very cold” and “very unfavorable,” according to results published by Gallup and Pew, two leading public opinion research groups, this month.

Every few months, another mainstream, widely respected group publishes Americans’ answers to some version of this very broad question. In October, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published results from their version of the so-called “feeling thermometer” question, allowing responses on a 100-point scale ranging from a “very warm, favorable feeling” of 100 to a “very cold, unfavorable” feeling of zero. Nearly 1,200 Americans came back with an average response that was, well, freezing at 32.

In a national context that sees Asian Americans harassed and assaulted because of their ethnicity, and where then President Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” was linked to increases in racist online rhetoric, some observers are wishing that the questions Americans ask to understand themselves allow for more nuance.

“It’s not possible to treat China like this one, coherent thing. As if you can hold positive or negative attitudes towards the government, all the people, the culture — and that all sticks together as one single opinion,” said Tobita Chow, director of Justice is Global. Across the US media spectrum, China is a subject of constant interest. It is depicted as partner, competitor, and enemy, but it’s never ignored.

In this climate, Chenchen Zhang, lecturer of Politics and International Relations at Queen’s University Belfast, says the “feeling thermometer” questions used in surveys about China are different. ​Mainstream pollsters “wouldn’t ask Americans this question about Denmark or Italy, because no one would know who the prime ministers there are, or what the policies of the ruling parties are,” she said.

“And (Americans) don’t know the Chinese policies either, but they know that there is a Communist party, and it’s not good. I think that makes opinion surveys about China different from other nations,” Zhang said.

“There’s a lot of pressure and encouragement for people to engage in thinking about China that’s either black or white; good or evil. It is exceptionally hard to get people to think of China in a more nuanced way,” Chow said. “It’s worth asking: are there different ways we can check people’s attitudes?”

China as a monolith

Whether it’s the pernicious model minority myth or the alarming spike in xenophobic language being used to harass people of Asian descent, one of the defining features of the racism Asian Americans experience is being treated as a monolith, community advocates say.

And with the outsized presence of China in the American imagination, it is a frustratingly common experience for people who have nothing to do with China to be presumed “Chinese” on the basis of their name or appearance. Loyalties are questioned. Crude stereotypes are assumed.

And among those who pay close attention to the politics and culture of China, the extremes can be dizzying in a way that is difficult to quantify in a single word or “temperature.”

Chow says important distinctions get lost in the possible survey answers of “favorable” and “unfavorable.”

“What do you think about the state of the country right now, and what do you wish for the country? I have an unfavorable view about a lot of what is happening in US society right now, but at the same time I want things to get better for the US and everyone in it. I suspect that ‘unfavorability’ applied to China fails to make this distinction, and runs these things together: thinking that the other country has a lot of problems right now and wanting things to go poorly for them in the future.”

Decades in use, historic findings

But academics who study and design polls say that these questions offer valuable insight into how opinions have changed over time.

“The reason we keep using these feeling thermometer questions is because they’ve been asked for so long,” said Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona.

“There’s a trade-off,” Klar says, “if you change the question, then you lose the time series, and you can’t really compare it to any previous surveys. So it is really valuable to have them, partially because we’ve been asking them for decades. And if you’re seeing these trends become more and more negative, that’s definitely telling you something.”

In the year of the coronavirus pandemic, these trends have reached historically negative levels.

In the survey conducted by Ipsos – KnowledgePanel for the Chicago Council in July 2020, Americans responded with the lowest “temperature” they’d reported since the council began asking the question in 1978.

In a Gallup poll conducted early last month, 79% of Americans surveyed reported an unfavorable view of China. It was by far the highest percentage Gallup had reported since September 1979.

In a Pew survey also from ​last summer, 42% of Americans surveyed reported a “very unfavorable” opinion of China. It was by far the highest percentage Pew had observed since it began asking the question in the spring of 2005.

These findings were reported widely, often as little more than splashy headlines and tweets.

Feelings about the self and the other

To Klar, the historically negative results may be a function, in part, of the way the question was asked.

Klar does not study China, or Americans’ opinions of it. But she does use survey research to understand how Americans think about partisan politics at home, and she sees some relevant parallels in the ways “feeling thermometer” questions are asked of Democrats and Republicans.

“What survey researchers have found, over the last several decades, is that people feel about the same towards their own party that they always have, but they feel more and more negative towards the other party. And this has led to this phenomenon that political scientists call affective polarization, which means people increasingly dislike members of the other party. And people are really concerned about this,” Klar said.

But in thinking about the “other” in the question, Klar and her colleagues have found that when Americans give especially negative answers, they are often thinking, specifically, about the elites of the other party.

Perhaps anticipating the public’s curiosity, Pew published a companion piece to its latest survey, explaining what Americans were thinking about when they reported their views of “China.” Similar to Klar’s observation about broad questions causing respondents to imagine elites when they answer, Pew reported that “Americans rarely brought up the Chinese people or the country’s long history and culture in their responses. Instead, they focused primarily on the Chinese government.”

On the subject of the Chinese government, Americans’ views are especially negative about Chinese president Xi Jinping. Forty-three percent told Pew they had “no confidence at all” in Xi to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

Klar says Americans polled on China might respond differently if asked narrower questions, like they do when polled on domestic partisan issues.

“When we say, ‘ok, now I want you to think about the people who voted for them, or people who identify with the other party.’ Then we find significantly warmer reports. So essentially, what this means is that people have very negative feelings towards the institution of (the other party) or the elites of the (other party), or maybe even that party as an abstract concept, but when we hone in on the question of ordinary voters, they actually feel quite warm towards them. Which suggests that we do tend to be colder in the abstract than we are when it comes to a person down the street.”

Risks of misinterpretation

So what if Americans’ now-famous negativity toward China is overstated?

Klar notes from her own research that “the more people think that Republicans and Democrats are polarized on issues where they’re not actually that polarized, the more they express negative feelings toward ​members of the other group, risking creation of a vicious cycle.

Stated more broadly, “if we overstate hostility towards out groups, it tends to exacerbate subsequent hostility toward those groups,” Klar said.

But as Asian Americans around the country are saying loud and clear, the racialized hostility they experience is hardly overstated.

Klar sees the risk. “If we understate discrimination, then we are essentially dismissing a really important crisis in our country, which is that a non-White minority is being discriminated against,” she said.

Justin McCarthy, a spokesperson for Gallup, notes that their polls have measured large fluctuations in public opinion over the last four decades. But previous spikes in American antipathy for China have not corresponded to increased reports of xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans like this past year.

Diversity in design

David Wilson, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, says “feeling thermometer” questions can be effective tools for measuring a society’s views, and may even help pollsters identify the kinds of views that respondents may be reluctant to admit openly.

The American public’s affect, or mood, about China, is a useful data point for researchers, Wilson says. In combination with data from other questions on things like specific foreign policy initiatives, researchers can gain valuable insight into the public’s behavior.

But Wilson notes that what the general public considers to be an appropriate survey question can change over time. So can the makeup of that public, itself.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, according to Pew, and their voices have been reflected in these polls in increasing numbers. But according to Wilson, there has been relatively little focus in the survey design world on how Asian Americans perceive questions. “It’s a legitimate concern to know how they’re interpreting the questions,” he said.

“Most questions have been standardized on White Americans. America is probably the leading country in terms of surveys and public opinion work, and, on average, the overwhelming majority of every sample is White people. So most of the questions we’ve been tracking over time just disregard the racial sensitivities of other groups,” Wilson said.

How can researchers accommodate for the ways different people may perceive a question?

For me, it’s diversifying the survey room so you can have the tough conversations with each other, and vet the survey. Vet the conversation before you give it to the public,” he said, about his hopes for the industry as a whole.

The view from the survey room

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a member of the team that designed their October 2020 survey. She says the survey’s questions offer an important way “to gauge the ups and downs” of a relationship like the one between the US and China, and the public’s reactions to it.

“I don’t think this is normalizing animus, it is measuring a snapshot of public opinion at a particular point in time. The thermometer is an especially neutral way to ask about a country,” she said.

But she notes that there can be big differences between views of a country and views of its people.

“In a perfect world, research organizations would be able to ask a full range of questions about the Chinese government, the Chinese economy, the positives they associate with China, the negatives they associate with China, and then move on to ask about the Chinese people, the positives and negatives associated with the Chinese people, and from there break it down even further,” Smeltz said.

“If we had the room and the budget to ask deeper questions about various groups of people within China, those indicators would, of course, add a richer understanding of American attitudes toward China and the Chinese people. Hopefully we will be funded to do that in the future.”

McCarthy defends his organization’s current approach. “At Gallup we are fortunate to have powerful tools at our disposal to accurately measure public opinion, and to have trends that provide unparalleled context for current attitudes. It is our responsibility to maintain these trends and to provide expert analysis explaining them. Selectively choosing not to measure certain things out of fear of how the results may be misinterpreted or misused would be a dangerous and slippery slope. Rather, we would encourage all who want to improve society to look to reliable data like Gallup’s to understand public attitudes and work from there to press for policy or societal changes as needed.”

Laura Silver, senior researcher at Pew, said “we agree that it’s important to be clear what people are thinking about when they respond to questions like our feeling thermometers,” and noted that, this year, Pew asked a question to try to uncover that.

“Our results show that when Americans described what they thought about China, they rarely brought up the Chinese people or the country’s long history and culture in their responses. Instead, they focused primarily on the Chinese government — including its policies or how it behaves internationally — as well as its economy.”

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