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Political and business ‘elites’ in the US are more likely than common folk to believe that China is beneficial to the economies of their home states, a recent survey shows. Photo: TNS

US perspectives on China, Asia vary sharply between ‘elites’ and general public, survey finds

  • Officials, bureaucrats and business leaders in the US are nearly twice as likely as common folk to view trade with China as beneficial to their states’ economies
  • Findings come as Washington is looking to re-engage with the Asia-Pacific region amid heightened geopolitical tensions and economic competition with China

American “elites” and the general public have vastly different perspectives on the economic benefits gained from engagement with China and the Asia-Pacific region, a new survey has found.

Funded by the East-West Centre, a Hawaii-based research and education organisation, the survey found that, when it comes to issues such as trade and job creation, political and business elites were much more likely than ordinary folks to believe that China and other Asian countries were beneficial to their states’ economies.

“There is a large gap between the public’s view of Asia and China’s importance, and elites who believe Asia and China are far more important,” Satu Limaye, vice-president of the East-West Centre, said on Wednesday during a panel discussion on the findings.

Conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the survey found that while 48 per cent of elites said trade with China was “extremely” or “very” beneficial to the economies of their home states, that number fell to 25 per cent for the general public.

In terms of job creation, only 30 per cent of the general public believed that China was a source of “some” or “a lot of” jobs in their state, compared with 54 per cent of elites.

“The degree of the gap is quite troubling,” Limaye said.

The NORC polled more than 1,000 members of the general population, as well as more than 1,400 “elites” - defined as elected or appointed officials, bureaucrats, and business leaders - for the survey.

The findings come in a year that has seen marked developments in US efforts to re-engage with the Asia-Pacific region amid heightened geopolitical tensions and economic competition with China.

In September, US-led negotiations began with 14 countries to kick-start the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the economic arm of US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Building the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, pillar by pillar

However, even when accounting for the entire Asian region, the gap in perspectives persisted. Only 18 per cent of the general public felt that the state of the continent’s economy mattered “a lot” to their state. Among elites, that number grew to 43 per cent.

Hsieh Ching-fang, deputy editor-in-chief of Taiwan-based Storm Media and a former East-West Centre fellow who joined the panel, said she believed that the gap in opinion was due to a difference in information exposure.

“From a macro point of view, maybe elites get more information from Asia, and the American public pays more attention to [local news],” she said.

She also highlighted what she saw as the “asymmetry of information” between the general public in Asian countries and that in the US: whereas most Asian people are quite exposed to American news and media, the same is not true of American exposure to Asian developments.

There’s still the perception that America is losing a lot of jobs to China
Richard Wike, Pew Research Centre

Richard Wike, director of global attitudes research at the Pew Research Centre, suggested that, to bridge the gap, more needs to be done to tie cooperation with Asia with issues that matter to the public, such as the economy.

“The challenge is to try to make people understand how what’s happening in Asia might apply to their lives,” he said.

In fact, one of the only economic metrics that saw similar levels of agreement between the surveyed public and elites was about the competitiveness of the US economy. The survey found that 69 per cent of both elites and the public were “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned that trade with China was lowering the United States’ competitiveness.

“There’s still the perception that America is losing a lot of jobs to China,” Wike said.

Recent years have seen competing claims over whether Chinese trade with the United States has led to job losses.

Which 7 US trade partners are the best match for its ‘friendshoring’ efforts?

In 2020, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute released a report detailing how the US had lost 3.7 million jobs due to a trade imbalance with China since 2001.

However, last month, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics highlighted research indicating that the US had experienced “no net employment loss due to trade with China”, and that such trade had instead led to “wage increases for 75 per cent of American workers” between 2000 and 2014.

James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think tank in South Korea, said the findings should provide a roadmap for Asian countries seeking to make the most of US re-engagement in the region.

“Because we can see this elite-public attitudinal gap, we can also see some areas where policymakers in Asia can do more when it comes to public outreach and diplomacy,” he said during the panel discussion.