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Most Americans not confident in how China’s Xi will handle world affairs

U.S. President Joe Biden meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14, 2022.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Most U.S. adults in a survey say they have little confidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” according to the poll by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday.

Despite that pessimism, more than half of people in the U.S. said the two countries can work together on trade and economic policy, the survey found.

The study, covering more than 3,500 U.S. adults between March 20 and 26, comes as U.S.-China tensions escalate to the point of limited bilateral interaction. Exerting pressure on Beijing is one of the few topics with strong bipartisan support in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Xi has consolidated his power in China and is seeking to to bolster China’s global influence.

In March, China brokered the restoration of diplomatic ties between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Beijing has so far refused to condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, while calling for peace talks.

It is unclear how aware Pew survey respondents were of such world events and developments.

The study found 13% of Americans who participated in the survey said they have never heard of Xi — a percentage that surged to 27% among respondents ages 18 to 29.

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However, most of the respondents took a pessimistic view: Nearly half, or 47%, said they had “no confidence at all” in Xi handling world affairs well, while another 30% said they had “not too much confidence.”

About three-fourths of respondents said that China does not take the interests of countries such as the U.S. into account, and that China interferes in the affairs of other countries, the report said.

More than half of the respondents said China does not contribute to global peace and stability.

That directly counters Beijing’s narrative that it’s a contributor to world peace and economic development.

China has accounted for well over 15% of global GDP in the last several years, according to World Bank data. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the U.S.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this year published papers that highlight U.S. involvement in “many wars overseas” and claim U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific are meant to “undermine peace.”

Economic cooperation

U.S.-China cooperation on economic matters was one of two areas in which Pew survey respondents remained more optimistic.

Just over half said the two countries could cooperate on trade and economic policy, the report said, without detailing questions about specific policies.

The only other category for which more than half the respondents said both countries could cooperate was student exchange programs, Pew found.

The number of Chinese students in the U.S. and American students studying in China dropped sharply during the Covid pandemic. It was a reflection of an overall withering of bilateral travel that has yet to recover significantly, according to a report last week published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan policy research organization and Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The report was co-authored by Scott Kennedy, CSIS Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics, and Wang Jisi, founding president of Peking University’s Institute of International Strategic Studies.

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In visits to China in the last 12 months, Kennedy said people he met told him Washington was fully responsible for the decline in the U.S.-China relationship, and that China was still on the inevitable path of becoming a major power.

China is generally expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the coming years.

One deep-seated narrative in China, frequently mentioned by Xi, is that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is leading the country “on the right side of history” and out of 19th century “humiliation” by Western imperialists.

General pessimism

Pew survey respondents mostly did not see areas of potential cooperation between the U.S. and China.

Out of five such areas listed in the survey, three saw more than half of respondents expressing pessimism: resolving international conflicts, climate change policy, and dealing with the spread of infectious diseases.

“I don’t know what we could possibly work with them on. Certainly not the climate,” the Pew report said, citing a 25-year-old unnamed woman who participated in a focus group.

The Biden administration has said the U.S. is in competition with China, and imposed export bans on critical semiconductor technology to China. It followed the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese goods and blacklisting of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

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