Guess What? The U.S. and China Don’t Trust Each Other Much

A tourist wearing a face mask visits Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Nov. 23 Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Photo

And the Chinese trust Americans even less. That’s the conclusion of the U.S.-China Security Perceptions Survey (PDF) released on Dec. 11 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Beijing-based research organization China Strategic Culture Promotion Association (CSCPA). “There is a low level of strategic trust between the United States and China, which could make bilateral relations more turbulent,” warns the survey.

Working with the Pew Research Center and the Research Center for Contemporary China at Peking University, as well as the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Carnegie-CSCPA survey canvassed the general public and elites in government, business, academia, the military, and the media last year. In the U.S., it surveyed 1,004 adults among the general public and 305 elites. In China, it canvassed 2,597 adults in urban areas and 358 elites.

The tendency among the general public to label the other country an outright enemy was encouragingly low; only 15 percent of Americans and 12 percent of Chinese believe that. Notable, however, was the comparative lack of trust shown by Chinese elites, with 27 percent viewing the U.S. as a foe, compared with just 2 percent of American elites saying that about China.

In viewing the other country as a major threat, there was a split, with Chinese markedly more suspicious. 63 percent of the Chinese public see the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, with 81 percent of business elites saying that. Coming in a distant second as a threat was Japan. (Given that the survey happened before the recent tensions over the Diaoyu Islands—or, as the Japanese call them, the Senkaku—that perception may have shifted, the survey notes.)

Meanwhile, 52 percent of the American public believes China is a major threat, but only minorities among the elites said that. “America’s public and elites generally viewed China’s emergence as a world power as a far less serious threat to the well-being of the United States than other enumerated threats, such as international financial instability, Iran’s nuclear program, Islamic extremism, and North Korea’s nuclear program,” concludes the survey.

When it comes to mutual impressions, it is clear that Chinese view Americans far more negatively than vice versa. Majorities of the Chinese public describe Americans as aggressive, competitive, violent, arrogant, and greedy (in declining order of percentages), while only minorities of Americans say that about Chinese. (Minorities of Chinese describe themselves in those terms, too; while 50 percent of Chinese say Americans are selfish, 51 percent believe that about themselves as well.)

So what are the adjectives most Americans use when describing Chinese? Hardworking was No. 1, with 93 percent, followed by competitive, nationalistic, and modern. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans see their fellow citizens as diligent, and clear majorities “viewed American people as being modern, inventive, generous, tolerant, honest, and sophisticated. In each case, lower percentages of the U.S. public ascribed those same traits to Chinese people,” says the survey. (On the other hand, Americans proved critical of themselves, with majorities using the same negative characteristics to describe themselves as cited by the Chinese.)

The survey is hardly all depressing. A couple of good signs: In both countries, young people and scholars showed slightly higher levels of mutual trust. And “despite this general lack of mutual trust, a majority of the public in both countries thought U.S.-China relations were ‘good,’” the survey says.

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