Since the first US states began to move into lockdown in March, Redfield & Wilton Strategies have regularly monitored American attitudes towards China and its role in the coronavirus crisis. Even before this stage, accusations of mishandling and dishonesty, as well as demands for reparations and justice, had already appeared in popular discourse surrounding the “Chinese virus”.
Our polls have found consistent scepticism towards the actions of the Chinese Government in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. Claims of a cover-up have come from both America and China; White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien likened Beijing’s handling to that of the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl disaster, while professors near Wuhan claim their early warnings and recommendations to health officials were not made public until too late. At this stage, a clear majority of US respondents (62%) believe the Chinese government covered up the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus when it first emerged. Fewer than a fifth (18%) of respondents believe China acted transparently. Since June, between 60-63% have considered that the Chinese government covered up the threat from coronavirus, and just 18-21% have considered that the country acted openly.
Opinion has been consistently divided depending on the ages of respondents: between 74-82% of those above the age of 65 believe there was a cover-up by the Chinese Government, compared to only 40-50% of 18-to-24-year olds.
Trump voters are increasingly likely to believe there was a cover-up. In June, Trump voters were 13% more likely to say there was a cover-up than Biden voters were, yet they are 23% more likely to hold this view now in late August. Over the course of the summer, 71-79% of likely Trump voters and 55-62% of likely Biden voters have believed there was a cover-up.
The American public also distrusts the accuracy of data released by the Chinese government. A majority (64%) believe the official number of reported cases and deaths in China is not trustworthy, while just 19% say it is trustworthy. Similar research conducted in April revealed responses within a 5 per cent margin of these results.
As before, older respondents generally hold more sceptical attitudes towards China. At this stage, 71% of those over the age of 65 question the accuracy of Chinese data, compared to 50% of 18-to-24-year olds. Similarly, 77% of likely Trump voters distrust Beijing’s figures, compared to 58% of Biden’s likely voters.
Many argue that proactive and transparent messages from China could have saved thousands of lives and jobs by allowing other countries to introduce containment measures earlier. On the other hand, public health experts insist there was still time for Trump’s administration to act effectively and warn of ploys to exculpate politicians and officials in Washington. Overall, a majority (55%) of the US public believe China should be held responsible for the pandemic, while just 15% disagree. Opinion has remained stable across the last two months: between 55-58% have agreed that China should be held responsible for the pandemic, while around 15-16% have disagreed.
There is a clear partisan dimension at play: since June, 78-83% of likely Trump voters have felt that China should be held responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, compared to just 37-43% of likely Biden voters.
China hawks have risen to prominence in the White House as tensions rise between the two nations. Attacking Beijing was a major theme of the Republican National Convention, including in speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. Moreover, Trump’s RNC speech criticised Biden for cheering “the rise of China as a positive development for the United States”. Our latest poll found that around a third (33%) think the US Government should seek more distant relations with China, while 21% would prefer a closer relationship. These figures have varied very little across the past few months.
Likely Trump voters have consistently been much more likely to support a more distant relationship. Since June, 44-56% of likely Trump voters preferred more distant relations, dwarfing the 22-26% of likely Biden voters. Although a plurality of likely Trump voters favour more distant relations, it should be noted that there are realistic limits to the amount of ‘decoupling‘ that can be expected. Both nations’ economies are intricately entwined, as Pompeo himself has admitted, and business chiefs with strong lobbying influences across the political spectrum have called for a more moderate approach, as have members of Trump’s administration with links to Wall Street. Ultimately, despite support for recent limitations on Chinese business expansion in the West, businesses will likely still seek to capitalise on Chinese advances in science and technology.
The President’s remarks on China and the coronavirus have regularly drawn media attention. Trump has demanded reparations, withdrawn funding from the “China-centric” World Health Organisation, and used inflammatory language, such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu”. Nevertheless, Trump’s criticism of China has resonated with the public, a plurality (30%) of whom believe the President’s stance towards China has been “about right”.Moreover, 28% believe the President’s stance towards China has not been aggressive enough, while fewer than a fifth (19%) believe he has been too aggressive.
The public is increasingly keen for the President to take a more aggressive stance against China. In June, 35% believed Trump’s position was “about right” while less than a quarter favoured a more aggressive stance. Now, that gap has narrowed to just two percent.
An overwhelming majority of likely Trump voters judge the President’s policies to be either about right or not aggressive enough. However, Biden voters are strongly divided on the President’s current stance. While the proportion who think Trump’s approach to China is about right has been consistently low (14-20%), 29-35% have said the President has been too aggressive and, and 26-27% have said he has not been aggressive enough. It appears that likely Biden voters are far less decided on this issue than Trump voters: 21-29% of Biden voters have responded “don’t know”, compared to just 7-13% of likely Trump voters.
Looking more closely at November’s election, a plurality (47%) of the public believe that Trump would act more firmly on China than Biden, while 36% think that Biden would be tougher on China than Trump.
In April, when we asked a similar question, a majority (51%) claimed Trump would be tougher on China, while only around a quarter (25%) believed Biden would be. Therefore, it is clear that Biden is increasingly viewed as a candidate who will be tough on China. Two-thirds (66%) of likely Biden voters now believe the former Vice President will take a tough line on China, compared to 50% in April.
Respondents across the political divide regard the Presidential candidates’ approach to China as a key electoral issue. In our latest poll, an overwhelming majority (80%) stated that the stances of the Presidential candidates towards China will have some degree of importance to how they vote. In polls conducted since early July, over three quarters (78-80%) have acknowledged that the stances of the candidates towards China will be a factor in how they vote.
Nevertheless, a substantially greater proportion of likely Trump voters (90%) view the stances of the Presidential candidates towards China as important compared to likely Biden voters (73%). Overall, however, these figures still represent very significant majorities across the likely voters of both candidates, to the extent that they can be considered national rather than party concerns. Indeed, commentators in both the US and China believe recently heightened tensions are an inevitable outcome of a difficult coexistence between two inherently incompatible and contradictory political and economic systems.
Overall, Trump’s support base remains supportive of the President’s approach towards Sino-American relations, even as Biden voters believe the Democratic candidate would adopt a more effective approach if elected President. Trump’s continued lead over Biden on the issue of China is still comfortable enough to encourage his campaign that this line of attack on the Democratic candidate is worth continuing. Yet, as the November election approaches, Biden is clearly making gains in convincing the public that he, too, would be tough on China.
To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
 12 & 19 August 2020 question: Now, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, which candidate do you think best embodies the following characteristics: Will be tough on China
25 August 2020 question: Between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who do you think best embodies the following characteristics: Will be tough on China: