BEIJING — China bashing was a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The country, he argued, was stealing American jobs and running an unsustainably high trade surplus with the United States.
But as the U.S. president prepares to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida this week, a new survey by the Pew Research Center shows that the American public is significantly less worried about those issues than they were a couple of years ago.
Indeed, the American public has grown steadily more favorable to China in the past year as the U.S. economy has improved.
Trump has already predicted a “very difficult” meeting with Xi over trade, but this survey suggests there is a danger he could be fighting yesterday’s battle.
Here’s Pew’s headline chart, showing how Americans are looking more favorably at China than they did a year ago, even if attitudes are evenly split between those expressing favorable and unfavorable impressions. (Incidentally, those numbers are comparable to Chinese views of the United States: The Pew 2016 Global Attitudes Survey showed 50 percent of Chinese people expressing a favorable view of the United States and 44 percent unfavorable.)
This second chart helps explain why American attitudes are improving. Concerns about China as an economic threat have declined in the past two years. That coincides, Pew says, with growing optimism about the U.S. economy. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans now say the economic situation is good or somewhat good, up from 4 in 10 two years ago.
This third chart goes into the concerns in a little more depth. One takeaway: Concern about China’s human rights situation remains significant, even if the Trump administration is, according to CNN, not going to be making a big deal about it this week.
The moral of this story, in terms of trade anyway, might be: “If it ain't broke don't fix it.” China is a convenient scapegoat when the U.S. economy is in trouble, but now that the economy is on an upswing, there may be less public appetite to find someone to blame. Indeed, experts say there are important voices within the new Trump administration arguing that a trade war with China would damage both countries’ economies and isn’t a good idea. That appears to be one reason Trump has so far backed away from a fight.
But one final chart should give some reason for pause. This shows that concerns about China’s economic threat remain significantly higher among Republican voters than among Democrats. In other words, picking on China is still something that could resonate with Trump's most loyal supporters. (Democrats are more worried about China’s environmental impact).