The U.S.-China Perception Gap: A Recipe for Disaster?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 1
In December, a war of words raged across the Pacific over the very meaning of the word “democracy” (China Brief, December 14, 2021). The United States held its Summit for Democracy, inviting other democracies of various stripes, while China convened its own competing “Dialogue on Democracy,” calling out the U.S. for fomenting a cold war-style global geopolitical split (CGTN, December 2, 2021; U.S. Department of State).
This discourse battle exemplifies a trend in Chinese views of the U.S. that has been gradually forming over the past 15 years. The 2008 global financial crisis, ill-fated American military campaigns, and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic have led Chinese leaders to doubt U.S. power and capabilities. Yet, Washington has held on to the belief that it is capable of shaping China’s behaviors, either through inducement or deterrence. Even as the U.S. recognizes the limits of its influence and the recent relative decline in prestige, it still sees tremendous strengths in its military and economic prowess, alliance networks, democratic values, and soft power.
The perception gap between China and the U.S. concerning American power is a potential recipe for disaster. While this does not imply that conflict is imminent or unavoidable, it does make miscalculations and miscommunications in the U.S.-China relationship both more likely and more dangerous.
Chinese Perceptions of the U.S.: A Weakened Rival
China’s perception of the U.S. has changed significantly over the past two decades. A recent Global Times survey reported that 96 percent of Chinese citizens harbor negative views toward the U.S. and even modest estimations put the number of Chinese with unfavorable views of the U.S. above 60 percent (Global Times, August 11, 2020; U.S. China Perception Monitor, 2021). Compared to a similar Global Times survey in 2005 in which 47.7 percent of Chinese viewed the U.S. as a role model, partner, or friend, there is little doubt that public favorability toward the U.S. has declined sharply in recent years (Sina News, March 2, 2005).
Less attention has been paid, however, to how China perceives U.S. power. Nevertheless, available information reveals a general sense that U.S. power and prestige are in relative decline. The perception that China is rising as America is fading emerged after the 2008 global financial crisis when many Chinese saw a shift in the global balance of power in their favor, contributing to the gradual departure from Deng Xiaoping’s strategic guidance of “hide and bide” (韬光养晦, taoguang yanghui) (Brookings, January 22, 2019). Another recent poll revealed that over 75 percent of respondents who reportedly looked up to the West five years ago now view the Western countries as equal or inferior to China (Global Times, April 19, 2021).
Although recent events have solidified China’s perception of the U.S. as in decline, changes in how China interprets these shifts in the global balance of power merit closer examination. After the 2008 crisis, many Chinese began to feel that the opportunity to overtake the U.S. had arrived. Proponents of this view saw a shift in global order from unipolarity to multipolarity with a relative decline in U.S. economic power in terms of its share of global GDP, systemic problems in capitalist institutions, and military failures in Afghanistan and Iraq (Global Times, June 15, 2015). Yet most scholars remained cautious, arguing that the U.S. remains the only superpower with unmatched capabilities and a shift in the balance of power will not occur overnight (Global Times, December 12, 2008). Wang Jisi, for example, proposed the “March West” strategy to counterbalance Washington’s “pivot to Asia” while avoiding confrontation with the U.S. (Global Times, October 17, 2012).
Increasing U.S.-China friction since late 2017 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic instigated another wave of criticism and skepticism of U.S. power and influence. More nationalist rhetoric from the Trump administration, America’s turn to protectionist trade policies toward China, and Washington’s difficulty managing the COVID-19 pandemic fueled perceptions of a sharp decline in U.S. comprehensive power (Global Times, January 12, 2021; The Paper, May 23, 2020). While the central message—that U.S. power is in decline and American citizens are becoming less confident—remained similar, criticisms from China evolved from focusing on Wall Street and U.S. foreign policy to U.S. capabilities, the Trump administration, and political and social divisions in the U.S.
Finally, in recent months, a renewed, more aggressive perception of U.S. power in decline has gained popularity in China. Fueled by the Biden administration’s emphasis on democratic values against the backdrop of America’s unceremonious retreat from Afghanistan, the Chinese government, scholars and public have gone on the offensive, criticizing the frailty of the U.S. political system. In response to Washington’s democracy summit, China hosted its own “Democracy Dialogue” and published China: Democracy that Works and The State of Democracy in the United States, charging the U.S. with being a fake democracy that values money and elites above all else (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2021). In fact, Chinese experts were already pointing fingers at the U.S. political system after the summit between Biden and President Xi Jinping. Even when the takeaways were generally positive, many Chinese pundits portrayed an image of a weak Biden presidency barely in charge of a dysfunctional system, citing examples such as Biden’s refusal to address Xi as an “old friend” (Phoenix News, November 16, 2021).
For China, U.S. power has been on a path of decline since 2008 as the global balance of power shifts in its favor. Yet behind this continuity in China’s perception are several critical points. IN a range of areas, from relative U.S. power in the global order to the capability and reliability of a given administration, to the fragility of America’s very own democratic system, China’s perspective changed from seeing America as an overstretched superpower to viewing the U.S. as a declining and hypocritical hegemon. China’s current perception of the U.S. echoes Mao Zedong’s (毛泽东) famous slogan of “the East wind prevails over the West wind.” Consequently, Beijing has shown greater willingness to adopt assertive policies and tolerate friction and competition with Washington.
U.S. Perceptions of China: A Hardened Resolve
When it comes to China policy, Washington is hardly stuck in neutral—on the contrary, over the past 15 years, a growing consensus has taken hold among American policymakers that the China challenge must be addressed head-on. Even as China’s behavior, both inside and outside its borders, moved in new and unexpected directions after 2008, Washington’s response continued based on the premise that its actions could affect China’ trajectory. To be sure, there has been a shift away from striving to influence China to undertake domestic liberalization and to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. More recently, U.S. policy has shifted toward balancing China’s growing power and countering its expanding influence. However, , the primary feature defining U.S. policy towards China has been continuity in America’s belief in its ability to shape its emerging challenger’s behavior.
President Obama began his administration with a series of broad objectives in Asia, including deepening engagement with China, but he encountered uncompromising rigidity from Beijing. China’s newfound defiance was exemplified by State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s outburst at the 2010 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the South China Sea was an American national interest, Yang made a lengthy and caustic statement clearly directed at Clinton (China Brief, December 17, 2010). This episode underscored the emergence of a bolder and more risk-tolerant China than Obama, or Washington in general, had expected or seen in recent years.
Obama eventually formed a broad approach to the region with the “pivot” to Asia, which was at least partly a response to China’s growing power and ambitions. In practice, the pivot involved allocating increased military assets to the region, crafting an economic policy that reconciled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement with efforts to boost American employment, and showing American commitment to the Indo-Pacific through state visits and bolstered cooperation with allies and partners (Foreign Policy, September 6, 2016). China, partly driven by perceptions that the pivot was meant to contain it, continued its expansive activities such as land reclamation in the South China Sea through Obama’s second term, which only set off further alarms in Washington.
However, it was Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who tapped into a potent narrative about China that both found a response among many American voters in 2016 and catalyzed a sea change in the way American policymakers viewed China. As sociologist Richard Madsen has argued, in 2016 Trump successfully resurfaced fears about China that had proliferated in the 1990s, such as anxieties over Chinese influence in U.S. elections, suspicion of Chinese theft of national security secrets, and criticism of the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) religious intolerance.
Once elected, Trump moved the U.S.-China relationship toward a more adversarial footing but maintained the goals of past administrations in seeking to shape China’s actions. On the campaign trail, Trump castigated the U.S.’s trade deficit with China, Chinese intellectual property (IP) theft, state subsidies for Chinese industry, and other unfair trade practices. As president, he placed tariffs on a host of Chinese imports, but still signed a trade agreement with China in January 2020, which aimed to return the trading relationship to some normalcy, reduce the trade deficit, and end practices like IP theft and forced tech transfer (CNBC, January 15, 2020). After western media began reporting on mass internments of Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region in 2017 (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, December 19, 2019), the administration eventually labeled the event a genocide. The Trump administration also increased American freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, used strong rhetoric on China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and revoked the city’s special trade status, and crafted a forceful narrative accusing China of botching the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (South China Morning Post, February 5, 2020; DW, July 15, 2020; Economic Times, July 5, 2020). These tough policies marked a different approach from the Obama administration, but they ultimately shared the goal of conditioning China to adhere to, rather than disrupt, a liberal, rules-based international order.
China’s reaction to all these measures was characterized by defiance or “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” confirming many of the suspicions of those in Washington who believed the CCP was beyond the point of hedging against confrontation with the U.S. In spring 2018, then former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden Ely Ratner (both of whom now serve in the Biden administration) argued that the Washington foreign policy community had misjudged China’s trajectory, vainly believing that increased international engagement and economic interdependence would lead it toward political liberalization and responsible participation in the U.S.-led global order (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018).
American actions do not bear out China’s perception that the U.S., fraught with disunity and polarization, is unable to address its rise. China policy now is one arena where Democrats and Republicans can achieve meaningful cooperation. Last summer, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would boost funding for semiconductor manufacturing, tech security initiatives, and training for the American workforce (Congress.gov, June 8, 2021). More recently, a bill that would ban the imports of products made in Xinjiang passed both chambers of Congress unanimously, showing bipartisan support for tough action on China’s abuses (Congress.gov, December 23, 2021).
Moreover, U.S. democracy, though imperfect and rife with unprecedented challenges, remains foundational to American power. It is America’s commitment to a rules-based order and democratic values, rather than mere military and economic might, that appeal to U.S. partners and allies around the world. Democracy also provides the American political system with resilience, allows for new ideas to enter public discourse, and enables marginalized groups to voice their grievances, much more than in China’s authoritarian system.
An unmistakable and widening perception gap on American power exists between China and the U.S. Yet the real problem does not lie in whether China’s judgment of the U.S. as a “paper tiger” is accurate or if the East wind is really prevailing. Whether China’s perceptions are driven by hubris, insecurity, or both, the mere existence of a perception gap between China and the U.S. is inherently dangerous. It limits the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to shape China’s behavior, furthers bilateral distrust, and increases the risk of miscalculation.
Ultimately, although China’s recent propaganda campaign to elevate itself as a model of democracy is not particularly persuasive, Beijing’s criticisms of American democracy, cynical as they may be, reflect real flaws in the U.S. system. Cross-party consensus on China policy does exist, but that limited cooperation is constrained by major political divisions and economic and social challenges, all of which threaten to sap America’s power and influence, domestically and abroad.
Harry He is an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. His research interests include China’s local governance issues, state-society relations, and US-Japan-China trilateral relations.
Eduardo Jaramillo is an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. His research interests include U.S.-China relations, Chinese elite politics, and state-society relations in China.
 Richard Madsen, “The American Dream and the China Dream,” in Engaging China: Fifty Years of Sino-American Relations, ed. Anne F. Thurston (Columbia University Press, New York, 2021), 120–145.