The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration sanctioned China for detaining 1 million Uighurs. Here’s what Americans think.

They approve of sanctions but don’t want a war

A detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region Dec. 3, 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Repeatedly this year, the Trump administration has confronted China over such issues as trade, the coronavirus, Hong Kong’s protests over the erosion of democratic rights, and the internment of Uighurs. Does the American public support — or oppose — the confrontational policy line the Trump administration has taken?

Our research found that while Americans are broadly concerned about China’s behavior, they just as strongly support building a constructive relationship with China. On an issue such as China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the province where the Uighurs have been confined, the U.S. public supports sanctions but opposes more costly actions such as withdrawing the U.S. ambassador or going to war with China.

Here’s how we did our research

We conducted an online national survey of Americans, fielded between Aug. 17 and Aug. 19, by survey vendor Lucid, reaching 1,886 respondents. We applied census weights for gender, education and race to enhance the representativeness of the sample.

We found the American public to be concerned about China’s behavior on a number of issues. Specifically, respondents rated China’s international military power, economic power, its role as a source of infectious disease and its human rights abuses as more than moderate threats, or above 6 on a 1-to-10 scale ranging from no threat at all to serious threat. On average, 67.7 percent of respondents perceived China as posing a serious human rights threat; 67.7 percent as serious military threat; 68.1 percent as serious economic threat; and 64.2 percent as serious infectious-disease threat. When we break down the “serious threat” category along partisan lines, we find Republicans constitute a higher proportion of those rating China as a serious threat, followed by Democrats and then independents.

How the U.S. has responded to the mass internment of Uighurs

To dig deeper, we looked at public views of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. About 11 million ethnic Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, live in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Since 2017, China has imprisoned at least 1 million of them in internment camps along with other ethnic minorities, calling them a security threat to ethnic Hans, who make up the nation’s majority. Those in the camps have been subjected to forced sterilizations, religious restrictions, ideological “reeducation,” increased surveillance and forced labor. Some observers have characterized this treatment as a cultural genocide; the British government two weeks ago announced an independent tribunal to assess these claims.

In response to this situation, the U.S. government has escalated from rhetorical denunciation to imposing sanctions on Chinese foreign officials under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. These sanctions included visa bans and asset freezes on such officials as the Xinjiang region’s party secretary, a member of the ruling Politburo. China reacted with retaliatory sanctions against several U.S. politicians, including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.), and against the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

In August, the World Uighur Congress recommended nations boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Last year, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) urged the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games from Beijing, a call he repeated in a Washington Post op-ed this month.

Why China's Uighur policy is a major change in its ethnic politics

Do Americans agree?

In our survey, more than half (54 percent) of respondents report being aware of the Uighurs’ detention in camps. Those respondents were asked what options they would support in response — for the United States to enact sanctions, go to war, boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics or withdraw the ambassador to China.

More than half (55.9 percent) of Americans favored enacting sanctions, the only option that garnered a majority. After that, 40.8 percent supported boycotting the 2022 Olympics, 35.9 percent supported withdrawing the U.S. ambassador and only 19.6 percent were willing to go to war with China, a nuclear-armed superpower and significant trade partner. Respondents may oppose withdrawing the U.S. ambassador for fear such an action might escalate tensions and lead to a severing of diplomatic ties, increasing the risk of armed conflict.

Republicans were most willing to support the more punitive options: 26.5 percent supported going to war, 45.2 percent supported withdrawing the U.S. ambassador, 63.4 percent supported sanctions and 48.4 percent supported boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics. But in some respects, Democrats and independents were not too far behind: Only 16.8 and 12.7 percent supported war; 31.9 and 27.2 percent supported withdrawing the ambassador; 52.6 and 49.1 percent supported sanctions; and 37.8 and 33.3 percent supported boycotting the Olympics.

Overall, Americans appear to support the sanctions, and at least some are willing to support an Olympic boycott.

India and China are skirmishing at the border. It will be hard to restore peace.

But the U.S. public also wants a constructive relationship with China

When asked how important it was for the United States to maintain a constructive relationship with China, 65.1 percent of respondents answered “important,” 16.5 percent opted for “neutral” and 18.4 percent felt it was unimportant. Interestingly, even those who want to retaliate against China still want the United States to have a constructive relationship with the country. Curiously, those who think having a constructive relationship with China is unimportant were especially opposed to going to war. We suspect these people would not want to go to war or build special relationships with any country, but because we did not ask, we hesitate to speculate.

Overall, we find the U.S. public perceives China as a significant threat on such issues as human rights. Those attitudes vary by party, as other studies have found. Even while recoiling from China’s treatment of Uighurs and agreeing that such behavior deserves sanctions, most Americans want a constructive relationship with the Asian superpower.

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John Kuk (@ithink02) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies racial and economic inequality.

Nazita Lajevardi (@NazitaLajevardi) is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and studies race and ethnic politics. She is the author of “Outsiders at Home: The Politics of American Islamophobia” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).