Chinese don’t see United States as an enemy, study finds, but they distrust its government

December 11, 2013

While China’s anti-U.S. rhetoric gets a lot of attention, the country’s elites and public are in reality less antagonistic toward the United States, according to a study to be released Thursday.

And while distrust on both sides is high, most Chinese see the United States as a competitor rather than an outright enemy, the report said.

The survey, jointly conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a Chinese general, is one of the first to target Chinese military elites as well as their U.S. counterparts for opinions on the United States. The study also looked at the opinions of four other categories of elites — government officials, business leaders, academics and journalists — as well as the general public.

Some of the most interesting questions were about who should be leading the world — a hot topic with China’s rise as a global power and the perception that America may be facing decline.

While a majority of elites on both sides believed their own country should play a role in global leadership, only 45 percent of the general public in China thought that way about their nation — compared with 74 percent of the U.S. public.

In fact, surprisingly sizable minorities among China’s government elites — 21 percent — and military elites — 12 percent — said China should play no worldwide leadership role at all. By contrast, not a single respondent in the U.S. elites surveyed said the United States should play no leadership role.

When asked whose leadership would make the world more stable, 22 percent of Chinese military scholars interviewed said the United States should remain the leading superpower. But the study’s authors cautioned that such results may have been skewed by limitations in access to the military. Overall, the majority of Chinese military elites surveyed favored a balance of power between the two countries. The same was true for the four other Chinese elite categories.

On some issues, the two sides held opposite views. Clear majorities of the U.S. public and elites said Washington takes other countries’ interests into account in foreign policy, while few in China agreed.

According to the study, the U.S. public is more worried about China’s economic strength than its military power — 59 percent vs. 28 percent. Meanwhile, the Chinese public is slightly more worried about the U.S. military than its economy — 34 percent vs. 20 percent.

And when it came to describing themselves and each other, Americans were much harder on themselves than the Chinese, who ranked themselves high on positive attributes, such as “hard working” and “tolerant,” but hammered U.S. citizens with negatives, such as “aggressive,” “arrogant“ and “violent.”

The study took more than two years to put together and at times required careful political navigation.

One of its principal authors, Michael Swaine, a China expert at Carnegie, said he was approached by Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, the deputy director general of a military think tank managed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Luo, a hawkish general known for his nationalistic views, proposed a survey that aimed to reach into China’s military and government elites, Swaine said.

“The two countries are now building a new model of big-
power relations
, which requires a firm foundation in public opinion,” Luo explained in a phone interview. “We need to know how exactly the Chinese public sees the U.S. and the other way around.”

The public opinion portions of the survey were handled by the Pew Research Center and a corresponding research center at Peking University. But for the portion surveying Chinese officials, the two sides had to hash out how they would get authentic answers on sensitive questions.

Ultimately, they were able to survey only military scholars in China, who were often members of the People’s Liberation Army but did not include any operational or retired personnel or officers. On the American side, retired military officers were interviewed.

The Chinese government officials surveyed were primarily provincial and municipal officials and did not include many central government officials. By comparison, the U.S. government elites surveyed consisted of current officials at the national level, mostly from the executive branch.

Regardless, both Luo and Swaine said the survey was instructive.

They said they plan to make the survey an annual temperature check on the U.S.-China relationship and eventually to build capacity for faster polls reacting to conflicts and flash points, such as China’s recent announcement of a new maritime air defense identification zone, which has ratcheted up territorial disputes in the region.

Li Qi contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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