The last time China hosted an Olympic Games, in 2008, the Asian powerhouse held a relatively minor role in American politics, mentioned during debates about outsourcing jobs and little else.
There’s little that’s minor about China’s presence in American politics today.
In the 14 years since the last Beijing Olympics, the public’s view of China has transformed and intensified, according to a bipartisan collection of political strategists and lawmakers, changing how Republicans and Democrats each talk about the country and rearranging its place in the national conversation.
Driven by its rising global influence and growing perception of its hostility to the United States, a country that was once on the periphery of American politics has moved much closer to its center — a role that’s likely poised to only grow in the years ahead.
“We used to view them as a competitor, and now the language has evolved to opposition,” said Jim Messina, who managed Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Now the language has evolved to more of a Cold War mentality.”
The shift carries broad implications not just for the political parties and their political and policy agendas but the business community, which is now under increasing pressure to alter its relationship with the country from both Republicans and Democrats.
In interviews, Messina and other political strategists frequently invoked the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union in the back half of the 20th century as a point of comparison, when Cold War antagonism suffused most aspects of American politics.
The relationship with China hasn’t reached that level just yet, they add, and some critics — especially on the left — argue that increased confrontation with the country is unnecessary and counterproductive.
But a battery of public opinion polls shows that the public is growing more antagonistic toward China, especially over the last few years. When Gallup asked Americans about their view of China in 2008, 42% of respondents said they saw the country favorably, while 55% said they saw it unfavorably.
By 2021, however, only 20% viewed China favorably while 79% saw it unfavorably — a 46-point swing in margin.
The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, found 67% of Americans said they felt “cold” toward China in a poll conducted last year, a 21-point rise since 2018.
“The migration of the view from China as our number one competitor to our number one adversary has been rather profound in the last five years,” said Wes Anderson, a veteran GOP pollster. “And it does coincide with [former President Donald] Trump taking office, but I wouldn’t say that’s the only driver.”
The rising animosity toward China, strategists say, is a result of growing scrutiny of the country’s human rights abuses toward the Uyghur ethnic minority and its increasingly antagonistic relationship with neighboring Taiwan, among a wide range of other factors.
The coronavirus pandemic, which originated in the country, has also contributed recently, though strategists caution that it’s just one reason of many for the increased anger.
More broadly, the country is seen as a bigger and bigger financial and militaristic threat to the United States, challenging its role as the world’s lone superpower and doing so with a different set of social and economic values.
“Today China is the second superpower,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the center-left think tank Third Way. “And, I think among policymakers and Americans, it has unclear designs about what it wants for the future and how it relates to America.”
That’s a broader portfolio of concerns than the American public had 10 to 15 years ago, when most voters saw China as an economic threat to blue-collar jobs.
That’s how the issue manifested itself on the campaign trail at the time: The campaign arm of Senate Democrats ran one ad in Pennsylvania in 2010 that featured the sound of a loud gong before a Chinese flag unfurled on screen, accusing a Republican candidate of fighting for American jobs to go to China.
“Those ads were really not about China,” Kessler said. “It was about American policy that allowed manufacturing to leave, or at least the perception of the policy, in which China was going to be the beneficiary of it.”
That type of attack on job outsourcing remains a staple of how political candidates talk about China, even if either party would likely face more backlash to the way the 2010 ad was designed. But the range of campaign-style attacks deployed by candidates has also broadened since then.
During the last presidential election, for instance, Trump and then-candidate Joe Biden tussled aggressively with each other over the country, with Trump accusing Biden of being the country’s “puppet” while the Democrat fired back that Trump’s policy rarely matched his rhetoric when it came to the country.
Even in an election taking place against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic and economic downturn, the country was a prominent feature of both campaigns.
“There were actually more ads in the presidential race about China than there were about COVID,” Messina said.
Effect on GOP, business
Trump lost the race, but his positions on China — particularly the tariffs he leveled on some goods from the country — had a lasting effect on a party that once uniformly backed free trade.
In a Pennsylvania GOP primary this year, for instance, Republican Senate candidate David McCormick has been attacked in TV ads by a fellow Republican for his alleged close ties to the country. It’s the sort of criticism within a party primary that Republicans say would have been harder to imagine when the century began.
“In the GOP primary base, the number of folks who are willing to stick up for free trade with China has shrunk dramatically,” Anderson said. “Really, you’re talking about in the range of 10% of the party base who say, ‘Wait wait wait, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ The rest have taken a very populist position that says, ‘We should be treating China tougher.’”
Anderson said he’s been taken aback in his own research just how deeply antagonistic the public feels about China, which about three-fourths of the country now regard as its top adversary.
It’s a public pessimism that other advocates say is already affecting American businesses that operate in China. That tension was evident last month, when a minority owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors said “nobody cares” about the country’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
The comment drew widespread criticism. And to some conservative policy experts, it was an indication of how some private-sector leaders don’t understand how out of step they are with public opinion, and the consequences that might hold in the coming years.
“It’s not viable right now to tell companies to leave China, but it is viable to say, ‘OK, stay in China, but we’re not giving you any taxpayer money,’” said Walter Lohman, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “I think that’s worth biting at first.”