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Hostility Toward China Is Growing In The U.S., Poll Numbers Show

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Poll numbers show Americans are growing more hostile towards China. It stems, to some extent, over how people believe China initially handled the coronavirus pandemic. But Chinese support for their own government has increased. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng looks at what is driving this difference in public opinion between the two countries.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Americans don't like China. A recent Pew Research poll finds 73% have a negative attitude towards China, the highest since Pew began collecting such data in 2005. Seventy-eight percent say they blame at least, in part, the coronavirus pandemic and how China initially handled its outbreak. Chinese citizens feel the exact opposite way.

CARY WU: Surprisingly, it's actually increased their satisfaction and also their support toward their government.

FENG: Cary Wu is a sociology professor at Canada's York University. And in April, he and several hundred Chinese student volunteers anonymously polled nearly 20,000 Chinese citizens about their government's handling of the coronavirus epidemic. He found about two-thirds of Chinese people were satisfied with their local provincial officials.

WU: But if it's toward national government, it's 93% Chinese people - they say they satisfied.

FENG: It's debatable whether polling data from China is accurate because participants may lie to avoid political retaliation. So Wu kept his survey completely anonymous to protect respondents. And his data is largely consistent with other polls in China that find high levels of satisfaction with the national government. Those numbers likely reflect the contrast between China and Western countries' handling of the pandemic.

QI ZHONGXIANG: (Through translator) The disappointing performance of Europe and the U.S. increased Chinese confidence in their own political system.

FENG: Qi Zhongxiang is head of Womin Technology, a self-build public sentiment company that advises the Chinese Communist Party and government. He gained notoriety early this year when an analysis Womin wrote advising Beijing on how to head off public anger after the death of a whistleblowing doctor leaked. Now, he says the coronavirus pandemic gives China an opportunity to build up support at home.

QI: (Through translator) The Chinese people have a more rational understanding of how the universal values the West promotes led to a slow epidemic response.

FENG: Values like free speech and personal freedom. Politics blogger Ren Yi, who writes under the moniker Chairman Rabbit, says the U.S.'s harder line over China's erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy is another factor.

REN YI: (Through translator) Many who were once very friendly towards the U.S. who went to school there, including the so-called elites, the middle class, the cosmopolitan, urbanites, they have become very critical of the U.S. because they are patriots now, too.

FENG: Those views are not accidental outcomes. Both countries' leaders have intentionally played up suspicion of the other to bolster their own popularity.

FANG KECHENG: State media in China found that, actually, nationalism always sells.

FENG: Fang Kecheng is a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He explains economic and political incentives lead Chinese media to play up eye-catching headlines that depict the U.S. as a failed state.

FANG: Nationalistic content has a potential to bring in more followers and more engagement, which means more advertising revenue. So you publish a lot of nationalism posts and the Communist Party is happy, and you get tons of likes and shares.

FENG: So as nationalist outlets and hawkish sentiment in both the U.S. and China continue to gain traction, the real loser might be U.S.-China relations.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "DELTA ROMANTICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.