Things Those Chinese Think (+What We Think Back)

Taken from Michael Swaine, et. al, U.S.-China Security Perceptions Survey: Findings and Implications, p.11.

Earlier this week the Carnegie Endowment for Peace published an important study (pdf version here) that presents and dissects an expansive survey of Chinese and American opinions and attitudes about their countries’ relationship with each other. [1] While the Pew Global Attitude Project has been tracking both Chinese and American perceptions for years, the Carnegie study takes a novel approach to a problem common to many attempts at  assessing the political relevance of Pew’s results: often popular views do not reflect what the narrow group of people who actually determine policy think and feel about the issues of the day. To overcome this challenge the Carnegie team complimented their general public survey with an identical survey given to each country’s policy-making “elites.” They describe these elites in the following terms:

In the United States, the general public survey was conducted April 30–May 13, 2012, among 1,004 adults. The elite survey was conducted March 1–May 20, 2012, among 305 elites, including 54 government officials in the executive and legislative branches; 52 retired military officers; 74 business and trade leaders; 93 academics, think tank experts, and nongovernmental organization leaders; and 32 reporters, editors, and commentators. Although not representative of all U.S. foreign affairs experts, the elite survey findings are indicative of attitudes among high-ranking individuals responsible for matters related to national security or foreign policy.

In China, the general public survey was conducted May 2–July 5, 2012, among 2,597 adults in urban areas. The elite survey was conducted May 22–August 22, 2012, among 358 elites, including 75 government officials (primarily retired officials with experience at the provincial and municipal levels); 73 scholars at military research institutions; 70 business and trade leaders; 76 scholars at nonmilitary academic research institutions; and 64 professionals working for the media” (p. 5-6).

From the outset a few things in this description are worth noting:

1) The survey was conducted in the early days of 2012. That was during aU.S. presidential campaign and before the Japan and China’s spat over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands ballooned to its current size.

2) No Chinese ‘general-public’ participants from rural areas were represented in the survey.

 3) Not all the elite categories for each country are not always directly comparable, with the ‘military’ category being perhaps the worst offender–American ‘military elites’ were retired military officers, while the Chinese ‘military elite’ were scholars employed in military universities or research centers. 

Recognizing that these three factors have likely changed the results in the obvious ways, we can now take a look at the results themselves. The amount of data collected is huge: the full survey responses for the American polls fill 60 pages, while the collected Chinese responses are more than 100 pages long. While I may dive into this raw data later, I have found the 60 page synthesis and commentary written by Michael Swain and the other folks on the Carnegie team to be of great interest. All of the quotations and page citations below come from this report.

Here are a few of the results that popped out to me on my first run through their report:

  • Between 12-15% of both the Chinese and American public believe that China and America are enemies. Only 2% of the US government elite surveyed believe this, but 27% of the Chinese government elite do! (p. 18).
  • When Americans (both the general public and the elite) state what concerns them most about China, the issues are almost always economic ones. When Chinese state their greatest worries, they cite military concerns. (p. 27).
  • 75% of all Chinese surveyed believe that their culture is superior. 50% of Americans said the same. (p. 12)
  • One of every thee Americans did not know anything about the U.S.-Taiwan  relationship. When U.S. elites were asked to list potential causes of future conflict and worsening U.S.-Chinese relations they placed Taiwan at the bottom (under things such as “disagreements over North Korea or Iran”). In sharp contrast, a large plurality (45%) of the Chinese public listed arms sales to Taiwan as the most serious problem in the US-Chinese relations, while Chinese elites listed conflict over Taiwan at the top of their list of potential causes of conflict (p. 38-39). 
  • Chinese scholars are out of sync with the rest of the elite: “the Chinese public and elites in most categories viewed the U.S. military  presence in East Asia as the most significant among a list of enumerated threats… the exception was Chinese nonmilitary scholars, 55 percent of whom described international financial instability as a major threat and only 46 percent of whom said the same of the U.S. military presence in East Asia” (p. 26).
  • Majorities in all categories of U.S. elites expressed overall approval of Obama’s foreign policy, with one exception: retired military (p. 27).
  • One in five Chinese government officials polled felt China should play no role at all in global leadership. This type of isolationism has no counterpart in America–despite all the recent talk about America’s coming isolationist turn, not a single American elite surveyed stated that they believe the U.S. should play no role at at all in global leadership. (23)

After compiling the survey results the Carnegie team held small workshops with groups of ‘elites’ in both Beijing and Washington DC and asked them to make sense of the data collected. While the actual analysis made by the experts is often valuable, many of the comments are just as useful as revealing snippets of the elites’ world view. Again, a few particularly interesting examples:

Another U.S. expert suggested that [the reason U.S. military elites are more worried about China than other groups] may have to do with the fact that U.S. defense analysts tend to glean information about the PLA from unofficial writings by younger Chinese authors, who often emphasize China’s rise and growing capabilities. Thus, in a sense, the level of distrust of China among U.S. military elites could be driven less by what they do not know than by what they think they do know” (p. 17).

Another Chinese participant observed that the perceived features of Chinese culture have arguably changed over time. For example, when he was young, he was taught in school that China had a long history of constant revolution and violence, in contrast to Europe, where religion had been used as an opiate to control the masses and prevent such wide- scale conflict. This supposed Chinese cultural proclivity was seen as dovetailing with the call at that time for continual proletarian revolution and struggle. In recent years, how ever, “harmony” has become China’s new watchword. The culture of the West—and the United States in particular—is perceived as the more aggressive and competitive, while China prefers to see its own culture as harmonious and peace-loving” (p. 19).

 “This elite also proffered an anecdote from a high-level Obama administration official, who recounted that when he asked the Chinese why they reacted so strongly to Taiwan arms sales that were less than they had been in the past, the Chinese responded, “Well, we’re stronger now. (p.31).

There is a sense of anger about alleged Chinese commercial cybertheft in large parts of the community of people who pay attention to this, even some of those sympathetic to China. Although this issue did not register as much among the American public respondents, it did register high among all five U.S. elites as a serious irritant in the relationship….. Oner discussant pointed to the sense of vulnerability that cyberattacks induce (regardless of the source of such attacks), as they present a new type of threat that elites may not feel prepared to confront. In addition, one participant noted that the threat of cyberattacks is immediate rather than latent, which elevates its importance for many elites. Furthermore, many elites have themselves been targeted by what they view as supposed cyberattacks from Chinese sources in a way that the general public has not, so it can become more of a personal issue for them” (p. 42)

Some of the things in this report were entirely expected; others, such as the sharp divergence between American and Chinese views on Taiwan, were much more surprising–and scary. I commend Mr. Swaine and his team for putting this report together. The China Hands and Geopolitical Junkies among you will find it worth your time read the whole thing.


[1] Michael Swaine, Rachel Esplin Odell, Luo Yuan, and Liu Xiangdong, U.S.-China Security Perceptions Survey: Findings and Implications (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013).

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