Senior figures in the Trump administration like deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger have encouraged the Chinese people to bring democracy to China. But anti-Chinese rhetoric spouted by the president and repeated by his supporters makes this goal far less likely.
We surveyed Chinese students at 62 U.S. universities
In the spring , we surveyed over 300 first-year Chinese students studying in the United States. Working with research partners in China, we also conducted the same survey with 500 first-year students in three top Chinese universities. We recruited the students for our study via student networks and a social media platform (see here for information on data and methodology).
We asked a dozen survey questions to measure students’ preferences for nationalism and political liberalism, and their support for the Chinese regime. For example, we asked them to what extent they agree that “national unity and territorial integrity should be defended at all costs” (to determine their thoughts on nationalism). Another statement explored their views on government transparency, one hallmark of liberal democracy: “the government should freely disseminate information even if information disclosure may increase of the risks of widespread panic.” Here’s what we found.
Chinese students in the United States are less nationalistic than their peers in China
Compared to students at top universities in China, Chinese students studying at U.S. colleges are less likely to support nationalistic policies. Those studying in the United States are also more likely to subscribe to liberal political values. And this group of students in our survey was less supportive of the Chinese regime than their peers in China.
While we think the differences between the two groups reflect differences in opinion, one caveat is that Chinese students in the United States may be less likely to self-censor when responding to questions about politics. Students in China may feel pressure to give a politically safe response.
And we looked at the impact of anti-Chinese rhetoric
We put an experiment in our survey of U.S.-based students to measure whether exposure to racially derogatory comments changes students’ views toward China’s authoritarian political system. We randomly divided students into three groups, all of which viewed criticism of the Chinese government. Here’s what we varied: whether respondents saw criticism from U.S. media and social media sources, and whether they also saw racially derogatory comments.
In our control group, students read a Chinese news article about the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was silenced for speaking out about covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and who subsequently died of it . Students then read 10 comments we collected from Chinese social media criticizing the Chinese government for its covid-19 response.
Students in the other two groups read a similar article about Li’s death, but this came from a mainstream U.S. media outlet article — one group then read 10 comments we collected from U.S. social media criticizing the Chinese government’s handling of covid-19. Students in the other group also read actual comments from U.S. social media: Five of these comments were critical of the Chinese government, and five contained racially derogatory comments blaming Chinese people for the spread of covid-19.
We then asked students in all three groups the same questions to measure their support for China’s political system. We discovered that students exposed to racist comments on U.S. social media were more likely to say that China’s political system is suitable for China than the control group — and that nothing about China’s political system needs to change.
However, for all these questions, students in the United States who read highly critical comments of the Chinese government written by Westerners don’t show more support for China’s current political system. This suggests that the monolithic view that Chinese overseas students are fierce defenders of the Chinese regime may be off the mark.
Surprisingly, when we look at who is most affected by the xenophobic attacks, we found that students who are least supportive of nationalistic policies exhibit the biggest increases in support for Chinese authoritarianism. This may be because racist comments provide new information to less nationalistic students or because those who hold strongly nationalistic views are already highly supportive of Beijing.
Does the U.S. covid-19 response affect our results?
Some scholars argue that the U.S. failure to control the covid-19 outbreak is a major setback for the appeal of democracy. In China, for instance, recent surveys show that support for the Chinese government and authoritarianism have increased significantly since the beginning of the outbreak.
We asked students to evaluate how different governments around the world have handled covid-19. Nearly 90 percent of our respondents say the U.S. government has handled covid-19 badly or very badly, while only 10 percent say the same of the Chinese government. But the relative performance of the United States and China on covid-19 does not account for the effect of racism on boosting support for the Chinese regime. In particular, survey respondents exposed to xenophobic comments did not have a worse view of the U.S. political system — but they did show greater support for China’s authoritarian regime. Anger toward the anti-Chinese rhetoric seems to be the main driver of this response.
It has become a joke in China to call Trump Chuan Jianguo, or “Build-the-Country Trump” — a riff on a term that refers to strengthening China’s power. Our survey experiment suggests that racist rhetoric pushes Chinese students who would otherwise be likely to subscribe to democratic values into the pro-China camp, and away from wanting to see political change in China.
By repeatedly using racist, xenophobic rhetoric and inciting discrimination against Chinese and Asians in America, Trump may be handing an invaluable gift to President Xi.
Jennifer Pan is an assistant professor of communication, and an assistant professor, by courtesy, of political science and sociology at Stanford University. She is the author of “Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers” (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Yiqing Xu is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.