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US views toward Chinese products will change

Editor’s note:

As China becomes an ever more globalized economy, it is increasingly image conscious.

What is the perception of China in the United States? Do Americans have a better view of Chinese products over the past few years? What do opinion polls tell us about the changing American attitudes toward China?

Bruce Stokes, director of the Global Economic Attitudes project of the Pew Research Center, a world-famous pollster, recently spoke to Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao about these questions.

Q: You said once that there is less bipartisan divide in the US on economic engagements than on foreign policy engagements. Does that mean China has a better chance of wooing Americans by investing in the US?

A: AS China emerges as a leading power, and it is already a leading power, it is important that it does soft power and other cultural things. That’s part of the game leading powers play.

But I would agree with your premise. If there is one thing that I think will change US-China relations over the next decade, it would be the rise in Chinese foreign investment in the US.

The various studies I’ve seen on this predict a dramatic increase in Chinese investment in a very short period of time. It seems to be on the same curve as Japanese investment once was.

And as China does that, there will be short-run tensions and problems, because the Chinese want to buy American companies that somebody thinks they shouldn’t buy, or the Chinese want to do something in the US and people will say, they don’t understand our ways or culture.

These were exactly the issues we had with Japan. But over time, those issues went away after tens of thousands of Americans began to work for Japanese companies in the US.

Our survey shows the favorability of Japan had gone up dramatically. Now it’s not a direct connection, but it’s not an accident that it happened.

As more and more Americans work for Chinese companies, I think politics surrounding China will change, not completely, but it will become much more nuanced and complex. And frankly, history is an example.

It would be good for China. Because your investment in the US will create jobs, and we should celebrate that. That is a big issue going forward.

Q: The changing American public perception of “Made in China” is a sign of China’s evolving manufacturing capability. Has Pew ever polled the American public on that?

A: I have no evidence, we never asked that question. Clearly 20 years ago, the perception of Chinese products was cheap and not very good, and that’s probably right.

It certainly isn’t the case now. If you buy a dishwasher, it’s probably made in China. We don’t have Chinese cars in the US yet, but I would bet 10 or 15 years from now, we will. And the initial perception will be history.

I remember when I saw the first Japanese car, I broke out laughing. It was too small, cheap, and now some of the best cars sold in America are Japanese cars. So these things will change over time. My guess is that over time the perception in the US will get better and I’m sure it’s better than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

You begin to see more and more highly visible products coming from China.

Lenovo bought the IBM computer division and Lenovo is not a Chinese name and probably many Americans don’t know it’s Chinese. But IBM is a pretty iconic product.

And now it’s not IBM anymore. It’s just Lenovo. That doesn’t seem to hurt or damage “Made-in-China.”

Actually the biggest danger to China’s image in the US is in the consumer field, and around health and safety issues.

Eighty percent of all the ingredients that go into American pharmaceuticals are made in China. We have to be careful about any health problems. A health scare of some kind could do horrible damage to the Chinese reputation.

Q: How do you guarantee the samples you assemble are representative, since opinions expressed online and offline can be wildly divergent?

A: We never tried to compare the two, but there is a growing field of research that looks at Twitter, or Facebook or Weibo or whatever.

Frankly, I’m a little dubious about that. It’s just a small universe of people, and they are very vocal and engaged.

I can only speak for the US. Older people are not on Twitter or Facebook. But on the other hand, we know that what’s happening on social media can in fact mobilize people. They can drive public and political discussions.

I think it is useful for research as long as one realizes that it’s only a segment of the population.

We have come across that problem even in research, because in the US today, 40 percent of Americans only have a cell phone or primarily have a cell phone. The traditional way of surveying was to use land lines.

It’s interesting that there was one American pollster during the 2012 presidential election, a group called Rasmussen, that consistently predicted that Mitt Romney was going to win.

It turned out they were only asking people on land lines. They were not asking people on cell phones.

Who did they miss? Young people, minorities, poor people, who are only on cell phones.

Who voted for Obama? These people. If you missed that part of the population, it’s understandable that you predicted Romney was going to win.

So methodology really does matter and can really affect the outcome of the research.

Q: To what extent have Pew surveys been used in guiding or shaping public policy, especially foreign policy?

A: Honestly I don’t know.

If I told you we have a lot of influence, you shouldn’t trust me. That’s too self-serving. I think public opinion is a useful tool, an additional piece of information when policy-makers are making policy.

I would be worried if this was the only piece of information used.

We regularly brief policy-makers because they are interested. But I can tell you that when they don’t like what they hear, they generally ignore it.

To give you an example, our first Global Attitudes survey was done in 2002. It was the first major survey ever done that noted a rise in anti-Americanism. We discovered anti-Americanism.

So when we got the results before we released them to the public and press, we looked at them and decided to tell the White House because this is really important. This is really a big development.

The Bush administration was in power then. We went to see Condoleezza Rice, who was the national security advisor, and Karl Rove, who was the president’s principal political advisor. We laid out the data, and they rejected it out of hand, saying it couldn’t be true.

And it turned out that subsequent public opinion showed we were right.

So I can’t tell you that our research shapes public policy, but I do have an example showing that when people ignore it, they probably regret it.

I do believe you can implement policies in defiance of public opinion, but it’s really difficult to sustain that policy over time. If public opinion is very strongly against something, it may eventually fail, and I think one of the reasons we got out of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan was that the public turned against our presence there.


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