How Does the American Public View the Sino-U.S. Trade War?

“Trade wars are bad and easy to lose,” said Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, in a warning towards Donald Trump. The trade war between China and the US has lasted 2 years. With sharp political confrontation in areas like unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, trade deficit, etc., it is unlikely that the issue would be resolved any time soon. However, by the outset of 2020, under the pressure of his re-election bid, Donald Trump agrees to a “phase one” trade deal with China, promising some reduction in tariff and lessening restrictions on some commodities. Since the trade war is a perhaps the most significant part of Trump’s nationalistic foreign policy and a key component of his re-election campaign, it is crucial to understand the public opinion towards his policy.

This research collected 136 survey results through the website SurveyMonkey in November 2019. The survey randomly selected respondent representatives and took the population in factors into account, such as income, region, ethnicity, gender and party. Moreover, the research is supplemented by in-depth interviews with a number of American citizens.

The result of this research could be divided into three parts: American citizens’ general views on the trade war, views on the causes of the trade war, and views on the future direction of the trade war. Over the course of the research, we found that Democrats and Republicans have significantly different views on the trade war. Compared with Republicans, Democrats have a relatively moderate attitude towards China. This is also confirmed by a Pew Research Center poll on how Americans of both parties view China, which shows that in 2019, 70% of Republican leaning Americans have unfavorable opinion of China while only 59% of Democrat leaning Americans have unfavorable opinion of China.

The general views on the trade war:

Overall, the citizens who clearly opposed the trade war are more than those who supported it. Specifically, 29% of all respondents opposed the trade war while 21% supported. 50% of all respondents remained neutral. This finding is mostly consistent with the New York Times’ report in September 2019, that those who oppose the trade is growing and greater than those who support. A possible reason for the greater opposition is that the trade war is already backfiring, and the harm towards the U.S. is greater than the harm towards China, which is manifested in the rising price of goods, raw materials and the declining business of Mid-Western farmers.

Partisan divide is also evident in our data. Of the 42 Democratic respondents, only four supported the trade war. In contrast, of the 33 Republican respondents, 29 supported the trade war. Since Donald Trump’s major campaign promise was to bring jobs back to America and, indeed, the unemployment rate during the Trump administration is the lowest in 50 years, his supporters might not be dissuaded by the adverse effects of the trade war such as higher commodity prices. In our results, 52% of respondents said that since the trade war they experienced higher commodity price. However, most of them still remained neutral towards the trade war.

The outstanding number of neutral answers in our data can be attributed to the fact that 78% of our respondents said that they know nothing or only a bit about the trade war. These respondents tend to have no opinion on the trade war. In addition, though 52% of respondents experienced higher commodity price, 78% of the respondents in this group states that the impact is not significant, which might explain why they do not have a strong opinion on the trade war.

Views on the causes of the trade war:

To investigate the public’s view on the causes of the trade war, we listed the reasons that Donald Trump cited for initiating the trade war and asked the respondents to rank them, including Intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, China’s rise as a competitor, etc. The top three reasons for the trade war identified by respondents are: forced technology transfer; China’s rise as the U.S.’ global competitor; and U.S. job loss.

When asked about whether the trade war is the optimal solution to Sino-U.S. trade issues, 37% of the respondents answered “no” while 17% answered “yes”, with the remaining group answering “not sure”. 60% of Democratic respondents think that the trade war is not the optimal solution, whereas only 21% of Republican respondents think the same. When we asked respondents to suggest the best solution to the trade war, most people believe that negotiations and diplomacy is better than outright confrontation.

Although Democrats and Republicans diverge on the optimal responses to the trade war, 44% of all respondent believed that China’s rise in recent years has been harmful to the U.S., with 13% said beneficial, 43% said neutral. Over half, or 58%, of Republicans are hostile towards China while 35% of Democrats feel the same. From these results, we conclude that even though American citizens may think that the trade war is not an optimal solution, they still view China’s rise as a threat. Moreover, since many identified forces technology transfer and U.S. job loss as the main reasons for the trade war, there is a tendency to view China’s rise as detrimental to the U.S. economy and citizens’ livelihood.

Future direction of the trade war

Overall, most respondents said that the trade war had clear harmful effects in the short run and hope for a compromise to be reached.

When asked about the future direction of the trade war, 49% of respondents expected a compromise to be reached. 10% believed that the U.S. would concede more, slightly higher than the 7% who believed that China would concede more in the supposed compromise.

When asked about the benefits and harms of the trade war, 38% of respondents believed that the trade war is harmful in both the short and the long run; 11% said it will be beneficial in the short run but harmful in the long run; 22% said it will be harmful in the short run but beneficial in the long run; 13% said it will be beneficial in both the long run and the short run.

The expectation for a compromise and the majority that view the trade war as harmful might be explained by the fact that a global recession is anticipated should the trade war continue. By that time, Donald Trump will no longer be able to sustain his good economic record and injure his re-election bid. Perhaps this is why he rushed to the negotiation table in January 2020 to settle the phase I deal to soothe his discontent mid-western farmers and business donors who suffer from higher tariff. However, if he wins his 2020 re-election, the compromise with China now is not guaranteed to stay.

Even if a long-term deal is reached, with half of respondents in our survey regard China as a threat, the policy towards China might not be friendly for the years to come. Looking ahead, with China’s rise, political, economic, and cultural frictions between China and the United States are inevitable. How Americans see China’s rise is an important question for both the US and global politics.

By Zichong Yuan, Feier Chen, Jiashan Lu, Aijun Zhu

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