It’s difficult to gauge — in the middle of the crisis — how exactly the U.S.-China relationship is changing. But everyone senses it will never be the same. Political leaders in Washington and Beijing have put their war of words on hold for the moment. But there is clear evidence that China is planning to use the crisis to its economic and political advantage worldwide.
Yet a new poll shows that, outside the Beltway, the coronavirus crisis is actually bringing Americans together on the China issue. Republicans and Democrats now largely agree that the Chinese government bears responsibility for the spread of the pandemic, that it can’t be trusted on this or any other issue, and that the U.S. government should maintain a tough position on China on trade and overall, especially if Beijing again falters in its commitments.
“It’s as much of a consensus issue as you can get in today’s divided world,” said Mark Penn, chairman of the Harris Poll. “Overall, there’s very little trust for anything that the Chinese government says or does, especially its premier. Xi Jinping has less than half the credibility of President Trump in this poll.”
Of the nationally representative sample of 1,993 American adults Harris surveyed online between April 3 and April 5, a net total of 23 percent said Xi, the Chinese president, was a trustworthy source of information related to the covid-19 outbreak, with Republicans and Democrats closely aligned. The White House and the U.S. media rated 53 and 60 percent in trustworthiness, respectively, with Republicans tending to support the former and Democrats the latter.
The bipartisan consensus on China doesn’t stop there. Ninety percent of Republicans said the Chinese government is responsible for the spread of the virus, compared to 67 percent of Democrats. Only 22 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats said they thought the Chinese government reported their coronavirus statistics accurately.
On trade, there’s even more agreement. Neither party seems to know whether China will fulfill its obligations under Trump’s “phase one” trade deal. But strong majorities in both parties believe that the U.S. government should reimpose tough tariffs if Beijing doesn’t live up to its obligations. Majorities in both parties also believe U.S. manufacturers should pull back from China in the wake of the crisis.
While it seems Americans in both parties are not buying Chinese Communist Party propaganda about the coronavirus crisis, there is less consensus about what to do about it. While 71 percent of Republicans responded that China should pay other countries in some way for the damage done because of the outbreak, only 41 percent of Democrats felt that way.
A firm majority of Republicans, 66 percent, said Trump should take an even tougher position on China than he currently does. Among Democrats, 38 percent said Trump should be tougher, 23 percent said he should be softer and 38 percent said he has it about right. Republicans favor Trump calling it the “Chinese virus” and approve his unilateral use of sanctions to punish Chinese officials who lied about the virus. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose both these things.
The political question for Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and other party leaders is whether they will take this opportunity to close ranks on the China issue, taking away the Republicans’ political advantage, or instead adopt what some on the far left are pushing — a pro-engagement strategy that paints the United States, not Beijing, as the bigger part of the problem.
“That kind of policy doesn’t have a lot of political currency outside of some support among some younger voters,” Penn said. “The majority support here is for making China live up to its promises, regarding China as basically untrustworthy and having a tougher trade policy against them.”
Outside of this poll, there were plenty of indications of hardening attitudes toward the Chinese government in both parties before the coronavirus crisis. Just in the past year, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have been working together to punish China for failing to curb the influx of fentanyl into the United States.
Outrage at the Chinese government’s internment of over 1 million Uighur and other ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang province has brought together the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) The Chinese government’s mishandling of the coronavirus is just the latest example of how its misdeeds and lies are affecting Americans in every state and from every walk of life.
Leaders in both parties should take a look at the data, listen to their constituents and then stop using China as a political weapon against their opponents, because that’s exactly what the CCP wants us to do. Working together to confront China’s bad behavior is not just a national security imperative. It’s also smart politics.