The Pew Research Organization unveiled a poll last Thursday saying 82% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, a record high and increase of six percentage points from a year ago. One notable Chinese figure in America takes issue with it: China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang.
The survey “failed to give people a whole picture of China-U.S. relations, particularly people-to-people relations,” Qin said in an interview with Forbes last Friday at the China Embassy in Washington. “It’s not objective.”
“I’ve met people of different communities” in the U.S., said Qin, who became ambassador last year. “Nobody told me that they don’t like China. Most of them told me that they were interested in China. They wished China-U.S. relations well. They wanted to do business with China. They wanted to learn Chinese. They wanted to go to China.”
It’s easy to see why Qin feels that way. The country’s chief diplomat in the U.S. had just returned from a week-long visit through three Midwestern states in April that focused on trade ties and bright spots in the relationship since the Washington and Beijing forged diplomatic ties in 1979. One Chinese visitor to Iowa back in 1985 was Xi Jinping; Qin last month followed the path taken by Xi in a return visit to the agricultural state as China’s vice president in 2012, even riding the same tractor that Xi did at the Kimberly family farm in Maxwell, Iowa. Xi went on to become China’s president that year.
Many of the Americans that Qin met on his trip had warm words for both Qin and U.S. commercial relations with the country that has gone on since 1980 to become the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest export market for American agricultural products. At a “U.S.-China High Level Agricultural Dialogue” in Des Moines co-organized by the U.S. Heartland China Association on April 21, for instance, Craig Floss, the CEO of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, shared with Qin remarks that he said were the same as he expressed to Xi in 2012. “We would appreciate the opportunity to work with you. We hope you will be able to share this message with others in China about how much we appreciate our special friendship,” Floss said. “We thank you for your past business, and we look forward to our relationship evolving to even greater heights through increased trade and exchange of ideas.” Besides Floss, the CEOs of Continental Grain, the U.S. Grains Council and the U.S.
Soybean Export Council, as well as former U.S. political leaders, spoke warmly of ties. There was little or no mention of contentious topics such as spying, piracy, Taiwan, labor practices in the mainland, or China’s close relations with Russia.
The Iowa welcome, even amid current geopolitical and economic strains between the two countries, wasn’t surprising, says Susan A. Thornton, senior fellow and visiting Lecturer at the Paul Tsai China Center of Yale Law School. “When I have engaged with audiences across the U.S. in recent months on the topic of U.S.-China relations, what strikes me is that audiences outside Washington D.C. focus more on economic, social and cultural issues with China than on security issues. With Washington D.C. area audiences, it tends to be the opposite,” Thornton said by email.
Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a business group that represents more than 260 companies that do business with China including Boeing, GM and Microsoft, said negative views now present in each country toward the other represent a source of risk and tension needs to be defused. “It is hard to deny that negative perceptions in the U.S. about China are at a very high level. Unfortunately, negative perceptions about America in China are about equally high. The abrupt decline in public polls on both sides of the Pacific are partially a result of Covid, travel restrictions and the indirect but large impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Washington, D.C.-based Allen said.
“Given the high degree of tension, there is risk that the two governments will not be able effectively manage an international crisis,” Allen continued. “For all of these reasons, it is vital that the two sides start a regular series of consultations at the working level to diffuse tensions, manage conflict and consider confidence building measures. We must not forget that we have many mutual interests.”
In the interview, Qin noted a shared interest with the U.S. in stabilizing a global economy under stress this year. “Looking around, we have Covid rampant in the world, and we have the Ukraine crisis in Europe. They have caused great difficulties to the world economy, and more countries are suffering from energy and food shortages. Global supply chains are being disrupted badly. China and the United States, as two big countries, as the two largest economies, need to coordinate and collaborate and to take a leading role to make the world economy recover as soon as possible.”
Overall, he was upbeat. “We are natural partners, because our economies are highly complementary,” he said. “We are very optimistic about the potential and opportunities between our two countries,” Qin said.
Qin backed up his view with data: two-way U.S.-China trade reached a record $750 billion in 2021, a 28.7% increase over the previous year; U.S. direct investment in China now approaches $100 billion, he said, while China’s non-financial direct investment in the United States has surpassed $70 billion. Some 97% of 70,000 American companies that invest in China are profitable. Meanwhile, China’s imports from the U.S. rose by 33% last year — though that left the U.S. with a trade deficit of more than $396.6 billion, accounting for more than half of China’s large $676.4 billion trade surplus in 2021. U.S. farm exports of $33 billion – an increase of 25% from 2020 — to China last year helped. The U.S. deficit with China was $101 billion in the first three months of this year alone.
Qin, 55, is well-positioned to help put words to deeds. The native of Tianjin, China started his diplomatic career in 1988, rising up the ranks with tours in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He returned home in 2011, went on to serve as Foreign Ministry spokesman and vice minister before getting a plum job in the U.S. last year. The importance of the U.S. ambassador position to China can be seen in a photo gallery of his predecessors near in the Embassy entrance, most of whom have gone to higher positions at home.
U.S. trade is a success between the two but also a sore spot. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in Congressional testimony in March for instance: “The United States has repeatedly sought and obtained commitments from China, only to find that follow-through or real change remains elusive.” Asked to comment on her remarks, Qin said that progress has been made and the two sides should keep talking. Qin
particularly bemoaned tariffs imposed by the Trump administration as damaging to both sides, and was also critical of U.S. blacklists of more than 1,000 Chinese companies, ranging from state-owned to private sector businesses, on the grounds of national security and labor practices. “Business and trade are being politicized,” a problem that — along with Covid — has led to a plunge in U.S. investments by Chinese businesses over the years, Qin said. “Chinese companies more and more are being restricted and even suppressed by the overstretching of the concept of national security and by the false claiming of forced labor in Xinjiang,” he said.
Though large multinational giants such as Starbucks and McDonald’s have been
successful in China for decades, smaller businesses may have trouble doing the same. Qin offered advice to the latter that may not easy for them to follow: “stay positive, stay confident in China’s huge market” and pay attention to its “policies, plannings, and development strategies. They are all open and transparent. They are on Chinese newspapers. They are on Chinese websites. So do some good homework and find out where the key priority areas are and where the good opportunities lie.”
Qin lauded people to people ties between the two sides. “People’s friendship is the key to state-to-state relations,” Qin said. “People-to-people friendship lays the foundation of China-U.S. relations. And I think the passion and interest between our two peoples for a good relationship (and) a more cooperative relationship are still here,” he said, noting the two countries have 234 pairs of sister cities. On Tuesday, he wrote a letter to a supportive crowd at a gathering of the China Institute, an New York-based organization that advances education about China. On Friday, he’ll attend a meeting in Washington of the New York-based Committee of 100, which works to promote ties between the U.S. and Greater China.
Asked to comment on Qin’s remarks on its survey, Pew Research Center said by email that it is “a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that conducts surveys and analyzes public attitudes about issues around the world. Certainly when we ask opinion of China and receive a single number – 82% unfavorable – it cannot encompass the entirety of China-U.S. relations. But, we asked multiple questions about the bilateral relationship in this survey and also find that Americans increasingly see China’s power and influence as a major threat. We also have more than 15 years of trends documenting how opinions toward China have shifted over time and views today are among the more negative we have ever recorded.” Pew added that Americans tend to describe “Chinese people” positively but “when using their own words to describe ‘China,’ most Americans do not focus on the people and rather think more about the Chinese government or the behavior of China internationally.”
Any way you look at it, Qin has his work cut out for him.