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Jan 01 0001
Farewell, 2012! Declining Chinese Image and Implications to China Debate in U.S. Presidential Campaign
By ZHANG Zhexin
Three years ago, the hit disaster film 2012 created a China-Saving-the-World myth in an apocalypse parallel to the then ravaging global financial crisis, and marked the most congenial atmosphere for US-China cooperation since the end of the Cold War. Yet the Chinese image declined soon afterwards in the US strategic circle and public media alike, most clearly demonstrated when both candidates were growingly engaged in a China-bashing game during the presidential campaign in the year 2012. What caused the decline of the Chinese image? How relevant is such decline to the way each candidate handled US-China issues during the presidential campaign? How much did Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s China-bashing rhetoric help them respectively in the campaign? And, now that President Obama has won reelection, is the cooperative spirit in the film 2012 likely to be rekindled in the years to come?
I. From 2012 to 2012: Declining Chinese Image in USA
In November 2009, a Hollywood disaster film entitled 2012 drew tremendous attention of the world audience. Not only did the film hit at the box office with a worldwide total of $770 million, the 41st highest grossing film in history, but its employment of Chinese elements also reached a new record: the “Noah’s arks” built on top of the Himalayas, the kind-hearted and sagacious Tibetan granny, the responsible Chinese officials, and the poker-faced yet compassionate PLA soldier who tries to reassure the panicking public in mandarin “The party and government will do all they can to help you rebuild your homes…” Beyond everything, it is China that has managed to build the “arcs” (though secretly) with the assistance of America and other wealthy donors that in the end carry the lucky rest of humanity to their new Eden. Little wonder this film was allowed to be put on China's mainland screen the same time as other film markets in the world.
Leaving aside Director Roland Emmerich’s box-office concerns about the Chinese audience, the film does convey some respect for China’s rapid rise and restrained hopes for China to play a rescuer’s role in the world economy. This sentiment was largely echoed in various polls among the American and even global public. As a Pew report in July 2009 showed, for example, most major countries in the world held a more favorable view of China in 2009 than the previous two years (Table 1). It’s interesting to note that the US’s favorability rating of China increased much higher than most other Western countries, presumably because European countries were quite concerned of a looming G-2 scenario, although they acknowledged growing Chinese role in global affairs in the meanwhile.
Similarly, such positive trends could be seen in major Western, especially American, public media as well. Thanks to the frequent mutual high-level visits and the many constructive interactions on such arenas as G20 between the US and China, their relationship featured “much more cooperation than conflict, more amity than hostility, and more positive progress than negative results” throughout 2009, which “has exceeded many people’s expectation.”[①] Thus China was much more “positively” or “objectively” covered by major US media like CNN, New York Times and Washington Post than in previous years.[②]
Unfortunately, such sentiment among Americans appears updated today. Gallup shows that Americans’ favorability towards China has been declining from roughly 50% in 2009 to 49% in 2010, 47% in 2011 and to 41% in 2012.[③] Likewise, a recently released Pew report indicates that, although nearly 2/3 of Americans rate  the overall US-China relations as good today, 68% of the American public are wary of China’s intentions and are growingly concerned about China’s rise, especially its rapid economic growth. Over 80% tend to perceive China as a “competitor” or “enemy” while only 16% see China as a “partner” (See Table 2).
Ominous as they may look, such results require further sober analysis and even validation of competing data, for diverse groups of American interviewees may have very different attitudes toward China, and survey results may be drastically different if conducted in varied manners. For instance, according to a 2012 survey on US-China public perceptions done by Committee of 100, favorable opinions of China have increased among all US respondent groups since 2007, particularly among business leaders (from 54% to 72%), followed by policy-makers (from 35% to 42%), opinion leaders (from 56% to 62%) and the general public (from 52% to 55%). Interestingly, the “elites (business leaders, policy-makers and opinion leaders)” believe about 20% of the US public view China favorably while in actuality, 55% of the general public report favorable views of China. [④]
To explain the big gap between survey results done by Pew/Gallup and by Committee of 100, one may refer to objectivity of representation (Committee of 100 only surveyed 1,000 respondents while the other two organizations surveyed over 3,000 respectively), elucidation of survey questions (a respondent’s answers may vary sharply to questions even with nuanced differences) and distinct statistic approaches (the more choices a respondent faces, the more scattered the survey results turn out). However, results of all the major surveys agree on at least three points: 1) More and more Americans see China as the world’s second largest power already as well as the first and foremost competitor of the US on global arenas, especially in the Asia-Pacific; 2) Although competition between the US and China has included military and diplomatic strategies to extend their influence, Americans are primarily concerned about the economic challenge (huge US debt, trade deficit, job losses, etc.); 3) With growing interaction and communication between the US and China on all stages, the gap between the US public perception of China and the elites’ perception is narrowing, although the latter still tend to wrongly believe that the vast US public generally hold unfavorable views of China. In short, it is hard to gauge how fast China’s general image in the US is on the decline, yet the increasing concern of China’s economic and strategic challenges has undoubtedly become a more prominent factor of the US political discussion.
Tracing the root of such changes, one can find major US public media’s accusations of China’s “stealing US jobs” and “unfair trade,” Chinese “black-box politics” with occasional scandals like the Bo family and bullet train-crash cases as well as China’s “growing assertiveness” internationally, among others. But beneath all these is indeed China’s expanding global influence and its guarded attitude towards the US’s attempts to revitalize its global leadership with increasing trade protectionism and rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. Through the magnifying lens of the negative-news-thirsty US public media, all the above elements have been pieced together into one bigger picture of China looming ever larger as a competitor of the US, and the cooperative spirit permeating the film 2012 has given way to a more self-interest-oriented and competing mentality.
II. A China-Bashing Game: China Debate in Presidential Campaign
Facing the perceived surging public opinion against China (remember how much the US elites mistake the general public’s view) and the seemingly increased US-China strategic competition, both candidates in the 2012 Presidential Election were engaged in a China-bashing game, and China became (rarely but unsurprisingly) an independent issue of the candidates’ debate rounds—“China” was mentioned 22 times in their second debate and 32 times in the third. Mitt Romney referred to China as a “currency manipulator” and “thief of our intellectual property” while Barack Obama also underlined his unyielding stance by announcing that he proposed more trade lawsuits against China during the past four years than the previous two administrations combined. One cannot help but wonder how much their China-bashing rhetoric helped them in their campaign?
Indeed, China has always been an issue for discussion during US presidential campaigns since the Nixon times, yet no presidential candidates before faced China as the second largest economy and trader in the world and the largest creditor of the US. Confronted with the high unemployment rate, the “fiscal cliff” and many other perturbing domestic problems, both Obama and Romney would refer to China as a ready “scapegoat”. The major difference is that Obama, an incumbent, had to appear more pragmatic and down-to-earth than the latter. Therefore, when Romney accused him of being too soft on China, Obama replied with all the measures he had taken to block Chinese investment that might incur “national security risks” to the US, to balance China’s “unfair trade” and to hedge against China’s rise by rebalancing toward Asia and strengthening ties with regional allies. In the end, to avoid the image of an empty-talker or too radical a candidate, Romney had to agree with Obama that there is potential for a great partnership between the US and China, though Obama did label China as an “adversary” once, the first time in his term.
With regards to the hundreds of major media reports and expert commentaries after the third round of presidential debate, it’s widely believed that Obama defeated Romney by a landslide in their debate on US-China issues. One of Romney’s most serious mistakes was in reiterating his determination to declare China a “currency manipulator on Day 1,” because this campaign position makes little sense vis-à-vis the much more appreciated RMB over the past few years and China’s current innocuous account surplus of 2.1% of GDP (well below the US-proposed standard of 4%).[⑤] Another serious mistake of Romney is that he made it clear his administration would be willing to engage China in more confrontation or “political brinkmanship” as some commentators would call it.[⑥] Sincere as it may seem as campaign promises, such stance is very risky not only because most Americans would definitely vote against a war with China, but more importantly, Romney may have misunderstood the American public’s view on China in the first place. Now that the election is over, one can safely say that Romney’s hardline campaign rhetoric may not have helped him win many extra votes especially in the key swing states such as Virginia, Ohio and Florida. (See Fig. 1) Considering the fact that Romney lost most manufacturing industry-heavy states that would have been more prone to influence of his hardline stance, the weight of both candidates’ China-bashing debate is by and large minimal to the final election results.
Looking back at the campaign rhetoric of both candidates on US-China issues throughout the year, a few lessons can be drawn on the candidates’ exploitation of the seemingly declining Chinese image: 1) Although most Americans complain about the current US economic condition, they are not convinced that China is a “culprit” any more than the wrong fiscal policies of the US government, and thus will not see bashing China as a quick fix. 2) Although China is more and more seen as a competitor, its image among the US public may not be as negative as many analysts—Romney’s consultants included— tend to believe. 3) It is understandable for both candidates to criticize China (and many other countries as well) for the dissatisfying reality in the US, for neither of them wants to be portrayed as lacking in conviction, yet it is very risky to overdo it, especially when a candidate’s words may imply escalating confrontation with China. From this perspective, Chinese observers should not have worried too much over how China’s image would be “demonized” by the China-bashing game during the presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, the elite perception of a declining Chinese image held by the American public did exert certain negative impact on US-China issues especially during this campaign year. Above all, it seriously hindered President Obama’s political will and pragmatism in handling a number of sensitive issues with China (the lack of military-to-military exchanges and no high-level talks at the early stages of Sino-Japanese disputes over Japan’s purchase of the Diaoyu Islands, to name only two examples), thus pushing US-China relations in a dangerous deadlock. Besides, under the pressure of domestic interest groups and especially the China-bashing offensive of the Republicans, among whom the Republican-controlled House of Congress, President Obama issued a number of sanctions on such Chinese business groups as Huawei, ZTE and Sany and approved high “anti-dumping” taxes on many Chinese goods including photovoltaic products and tyres, a move seen by many Chinese observers as escalation of the “US protectionism” and the hype-up of “China threat.” Furthermore, because both candidates lacked a convincing roadmap to the US economic recovery, they chose to “put China on the anvil” once again. Although their China-bashing game has proven of little relevance to the final election results, it has already caused much damage to US-China relations and the Chinese view of the US. A Pew report finds that the Chinese favorable view of America has declined from 58% in 2010 to 43% in 2012, and 26% of respondents define Sino-US relationship as of hostility in 2012 compared to only 8% in 2010.[⑦] In view of the leadership transition happening in both countries, such damage may take many months to recover.
III. Beyond 2012: A “Same-boat Spirit” to be Rekindled
If Committee of 100 is right in finding that the US public’s favorable opinion toward China has increased over the past five years and that there are good opportunities for US-China collaboration and trust-building especially in three areas including educational exchange, public policy and leadership development,[⑧] then probably we do not need to worry too much about the longer trends of US-China relationship despite the temporary China-bashing politics. As many political pundits, both Chinese and Americans, correctly noticed, even during the campaign year leaders of both countries kept taking sincere and positive efforts to maintain a working US-China partnership, and they still share a vision of good management, if not yet substantial upgrade, of the relationship: throughout the campaign Chinese officials and state media maintained a generally sober attitude watching the China-bashing game going on; likewise, on the US side, although each candidate tried to corner the other into calling China an “adversary” for an I-Got-You-Here effect, they both knew clearly that China is more a partner than an adversary and that the recovery of US economy cannot be achieved without China’s cooperation. That explains why they were both eager to say “China doesn’t have to be an adversary” in their final debate. After all, President Obama’s China policy will largely remain on the same course as that of his first term because it’s a threat if China grows too weak even to hedge a rapidly rising China is also needed.[⑨]
Can we be so optimistic as to believe, as the pseudo-cliché goes, that the US-China relationship “can hardly be either too good or too bad?” That the general public opinion toward each other is favorable and will remain so despite the ups and downs of the relationship? Various polls have already indicated a sharp increase of Chinese unfavorablility toward the US (from Committee of 100’s 30.4% to Pew’s 46%, both noting a 5-plus-percent-point rise),[⑩] and many observers in both China and the US tend to point out the potential challenges for US-China relations. For example, Mr. Wang Honggang, Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, identified three big changes in the relationship over the past decades: first, the US’s economy has reached the worst situation and “protectionism” has nearly become a cross-Party consensus; second, US-China economic competition keeps intensifying, which further enhances US protectionism; and third, the US’s strategic distrust of China has been at the highest level, and vice versa.[11]
Such a sober evaluation of US-China relations is echoed among many American “China-hands” such as Andrew Nathan and Kenneth Lieberthal. In an article published in Foreign Affairs, Nathan posited that most Americans are still reluctant to accept the fact of China’s rapid rise while most Chinese tend to see the US not only as selfish and expansionist, but also as a revisionist power that seeks to curtail China’s political influence and harm China’s interests. What makes this mutual trust worse is that in the “cacophony of views expressed in the US policy community, the loudest voices are the easiest to hear, and the signals are alarming.” [12] In other words, in spite of the common belief that the US and China can only both win or both lose and the fact that the majority of the public in both countries still want to maintain a good relationship with each other, their respective image is always under the influence of daily interactions between both countries mainly through the lens of major public media that closely follow both leaderships’ rhetorics and actions. Although one can argue that President Obama would play extra hard on China only for campaign considerations, his hard-line approach—after China’s “defensive assertiveness”—has inevitably added to a more negative image of China in the US. Hence the vicious circle continues, and the collaborative spirit once exhilarating both peoples is now waning toward the cloudy horizon.
Friendship is what mutual strong will makes of it, and so is hostility. Only a manageable US-China relationship will prove too ramshackle for the two largest powers to co-evolve (as Henry Kissinger terms it) into a more peaceful and prosperous future. Now that there are increasing uncertainties as to where both countries are heading with lack of strategic trust and “bottleneck of core interests,” among other challenges to their relationship,[13] it is of utmost importance to restore confidence and a common vision among the peoples of both countries.
During Secretary Clinton’s first visit to Asia in February 2009, she recognized the US-China relationship as one of a cooperative nature—“we are truly going to rise or fall together. We are in the same boat and thankfully we are rowing in the same direction.” This “same-boat spirit” contributed much to US-China joint efforts when the world economy was facing a most gloomy future. Later on, the two joint statements by President Hu Jintao and President Obama during their respective state visits also set the course for both countries’ “mutually respectful and mutually beneficial partnership.” As it turns out, such good will and shared vision played an important role in the fruitful cooperation and constructive communication between both countries during the first two years and a half of President Obama’s first term.
Although US-China relations and their mutual perception have undergone some negative trends owing in part to their strategic distrust of each other and the US’s presidential campaign, one should keep in mind that such trends are leading to a lose-lose outcome especially at this critical moment of the overwhelming global economic crisis, and that only with a rekindled “same-boat spirit” and a re-confirmed shared vision can China and the US work together with other partners to recover the world economy in a timely fashion from the verge of long-term depression as well as to reach a new equilibrium of global power. It is important to note, however, that such spirit and vision should not be built on an elated Savior-of-the-world mentality or calculated concern of expediency, but they must be rooted in deep commitment to common responsibilities, which is to be initiated at the very top level in both the US and China.
To call for a rekindled “same-boat spirit” at the top is not merely an empty wish, but it has very realistic significance as well. As Henry Kissinger sharply finds out, due to their distinct political cultures and diplomatic institutions, China and the US follow very different paths and principles in promoting mutual strategic trust: the US tends to adopt a bottom-up approach by which a grand relationship is built only incrementally on the everyday settlement of miscellaneous micro-issues, while China tends to follow a top-down path on which high-level consensus has to proceed before lower-level actions are possible.[14] Considering the fact that China is the relatively weak party compared with the US, it definitely needs more confidence and reassurance from the US than the other way round.
Put simply, the key to rekindle the “same-boat spirit” between the US and China lies in the effective management of sensitive issues, enhanced pragmatic cooperation and increasing mutual trust; toward this goal both leaderships’ public rhetoric can serve as clear guidance. As China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said in a speech in 2011, “We (China and the US) must correctly understand and judge each other’s strategic intention and policy goals. We must deepen our pragmatic cooperation, fostering mutual trust through cooperation and eliminate mutual suspicion with concrete results. We should show full respect for each other’s core interests and do all we can to positively guide the trends of public opinion and curb those voices that advocate hostility between us.” [15] All in all, only with firm confidence and unwavering efforts can China and the US become faithful partners in the current hard times and cordial friends in the long run.
IV. Conclusion
The US presidential Election has come to an end and the troublesome year of 2012 has already passed, but the “same-boat spirit” highlighted in the film 2012 is yet to be revitalized between the US and China. Although it is hoped that the catastrophes in the film will never become reality, the cooperative mentality among countries of the world is expected to take new roots in the unknown years ahead of us, for, as the film 2012 solemnly implies, all human beings are bound to be in the same boat after all.

Source of documents

more details:

[①] “A Review of Sino-US Relations: Cooperation as the Predominant Theme,” China Net, December 28, 2009, htm.
[②] Here, “positively” is roughly defined as “that generally incurs amity or other good feelings toward China,” and “objectively” defined as “sheer coverage on facts with little, if any, comment on those facts.” Although empirical evidence is lacking on the exact number of such “positive” or “objective” coverage of China by major US media in 2009, a brief examination of the titles of all related reports help create the perception that China was indeed less criticized than in previous years. See news archives of New York Times and Washington Post, for example.
[③] “Americans Give Record-High Ratings to Several U.S. Allies,” Gallup, Feberuary 16, 2012
[④] Committee of 100, US-China Public Opinion Survey 2012, Washington, D.C.: Committee of 100, 2012, pp. 20-21.
[⑤] Kenneth Lieberthal et al., “The Real Takeaways from Monday’s Debate,” Foreign Policy, October 23, 2012, mondays_debate.
[⑥] Colin Moreshead, “Day One: Labeling China as a ‘Currency Manipulator’,” China-US Focus, October 27, 2012, currency-manipulator/.
[⑦] Bruce Drake, “American, Chinese Publics Increasingly Wary of the Other”.
[⑧] Committee of 100, US-China Public Opinion Survey 2012.
[⑨] James M. Lindsay, “A Heavy Post-election Agenda,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 2, 2012,
[⑩] Committee of 100, US-China Public Opinion Survey 2012, p. 20; US Favorability Ratings Remain Positive—China Seen Overtaking US as Global Superpower, Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 13, 2011, p. 22.
[11] Wang Honggang, “How to See the ‘China Card’ in the US Presidential,” Guangzhou Daily, October 18, 2012, p. 2.
[12] Andrew Nathan, “How China Sees America,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2012. Kenneth Lieberthal expressed the same concern in their widely debated article as well. See Brookings: Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust, March 2012.
[13] CUI Tiankai and PANG Hanzhao, “Sino-US Relations in China’s Overall External Relations in the New Era,” July 20, 2012,
[14] Henry Kissinger, On China, New York: The Penguin Press, 2011, pp. 221-2.
[15] Zhang Zhijun, “Don’t Let the Advocate for Hostility Take the Upper Hand,” Speech at the Conference on Sino-US Security Relationship and Cooperation, June 30, 2012, http://world.