September 18, 2012

U.S. Public, Experts Differ on China Policies

Chapter 2. Threats and Concerns

Americans express far more concern about China’s economic strength than about its military strength. This is reflected in the solid majorities that say the large amount of American debt that is held by China, the loss of U.S. jobs to China and the U.S. trade deficit with China are very serious problems for the United States.

Still, Americans do not rank China’s emergence as a world power as the greatest threat to the U.S. More describe global issues such as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, Islamic extremist groups, international financial instability and drug-related violence in Mexico as major threats to the U.S. than describe the challenges posed by China this way.

When asked which countries in particular represent the greatest danger to the U.S., about a quarter of the public names China, more than cite any other country; 16% mention Iran and 13% volunteer that North Korea poses the greatest danger.

Like the general public, more retired military officers name China than name any other nation as the country that represents the greatest danger to the U.S. In contrast, Iran is cited more frequently than any other country by government officials, business and trade leaders and members of the news media. Scholars are evenly divided, with the same number volunteering China and Iran as the country that poses the greatest danger.

The experts surveyed generally express less concern than the public about China’s emergence as a world power. International financial instability tops the list of major threats across the five groups, but majorities in all of the groups also consider Islamic extremism and political instability in Pakistan a major threat to the U.S.

Global Threats

About half of Americans (52%) consider China’s emergence as a world power a major threat to the well-being of the United States, while 35% say it is a minor threat and 9% say it is not a threat. Compared with other possible international threats, however, China’s ascent does not rank among the public’s top concerns; at least six-in-ten see Iran’s nuclear program (70%), Islamic extremist groups (70%), North Korea’s nuclear program (69%), international financial instability (65%) and drug-related violence in Mexico (61%) as major threats to the U.S.

Older Americans and Republicans are especially concerned about China’s emergence as a world power. About six-in-ten people ages 50 to 64 (62%) and 65 or older (59%) consider this a major threat to the U.S., compared with 48% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 43% of people younger than 30. Similarly, 60% of Republicans consider the rise of China as a world power a major threat, while 48% of Democrats share this view.


With the exception of retired military officers, few among the expert groups surveyed consider China’s emergence as a world power a major threat. Fewer than a third of government officials, business and trade leaders, scholars and members of the news media see this as a threat, while 46% of former military officers express this view.

Across the five groups, international financial instability tops the list of concerns, with at least eight-in-ten saying this is a major threat to the U.S. Experts are also generally more concerned than the public about political instability in Pakistan, while drug-related violence in Mexico and North Korea’s nuclear program rank considerably lower as major threats among foreign affairs experts than among the general public.

China Seen as Country that Poses Greatest Danger

When asked which country represents the greatest danger to the U.S., more Americans volunteer China (26%) than name any other country. Iran, the country that receives the second-most mentions, is viewed as the greatest danger by 16% of the public, while 13% name North Korea.

In a January 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more volunteered Iran than any other nation as the country that posed the greatest danger to the U.S.; 28% cited Iran, while 22% named China (see “Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping,” released January 23, 2012, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to name China as the greatest danger. About three-in-ten Republicans (31%) name China, compared with 21% of Democrats; 28% of independents offer this view. Republicans are also more likely than Democrats and independents to cite Iran as the country that poses the greatest danger to the U.S. (26% vs. 13% and 16%, respectively).

Opinions about which country represents the greatest danger to the U.S. vary across the five expert groups surveyed. Retired military officers are more likely than any other group to volunteer China; half do so, compared with fewer than three-in-ten among the other four groups; 38% of retired military officers cite Iran. Among scholars, the same number names China as cites Iran, while about twice as many business and trade leaders and members of the news media name Iran over China as the most dangerous nation. More in government also name Iran than any other country.

China’s Economic Strength

The public views China primarily as an economic threat rather than a military one; 59% are more troubled by China’s economic strength, while 28% say the country’s military strength is a greater concern.

College graduates are four times more likely to express concern about China’s economic strength than its military strength (70% vs. 16%), and those with some college experience are more than twice as likely to view China as an economic rather than a military threat (63% vs. 26%). Opinions are more divided among those with no more than a high school education; 49% are more concerned about China’s economy, while 38% see that country’s military strength as a greater threat.

Despite the public’s concern about China’s economic strength, majorities across the five expert groups see a positive outcome to the Asian nation’s growing economy. Majorities in all five groups believe China will become more democratic as a result of economic growth.

Debt, Trade Deficit and Loss of Jobs Top Concerns

Nearly eight-in-ten people (78%) say the large amount of American debt that is held by China is a very serious problem for the U.S.; majorities also consider the loss of U.S. jobs to China (71%) and the U.S. trade deficit with China (61%) to be very serious problems for their country.


Beyond these economic concerns, about half also see China’s impact on the global environment (50%), cyber attacks from China (50%), China’s growing military power (49%) and China’s policies on human rights (48%) as major problems. Just 27% express similar concern about tensions between China and Taiwan.

Republicans and independents are more concerned than Democrats about economic issues related to China. For example, while 71% of Republicans and 66% of independents say the U.S. trade deficit with China is a very serious problem, just over half of Democrats (54%) express similar concern. And while solid majorities across partisan groups see the loss of U.S. jobs to China and the large amount of American debt held by China as very serious, somewhat fewer Democrats say this is the case.

In contrast, Democrats and independents are considerably more likely than Republicans to say China’s impact on the global environment is a major problem; 54% of Democrats and 53% of independents share this view, compared with just 41% of Republicans.

For the most part, foreign affairs experts are far less concerned than the general public about issues related to China. For example, fewer than four-in-ten in each group say the loss of U.S. jobs to China, the U.S. trade deficit with China, China’s growing military power and China’s policies on human rights are very serious problems for the U.S.

Of the 11 issues tested, including three that were asked of the experts but not of the general public – China’s intellectual property infringement, territorial disputes over the South China Sea, and China’s exchange rate policy – only cyber attacks from China are considered a very serious problem by at least half across all five groups. Retired military officers are especially concerned about this, with nearly nine-in-ten saying it is a very serious problem. Majorities of retired military officers and business and trade leaders and half of government officials also see China’s intellectual property infringement as a major problem for the U.S.; about four-in-ten scholars and members of the news media express similar concern.