Political Science Quarterly,
Vol. 126, No. 2, Summer 2011
On matters of foreign policy, the conventional wisdom had been that public opinion is fickle and uninformed and it was up to the steadfast an knowledgeable “foreign policy elite” to steer the ship of state. Of course, recent scholarship, notably Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro’s The Rational Public in 1992, has debunked the myth of the clueless masses. Nevertheless, where China is concerned, the American public is routinely assumed to be simplistic, erratic, and easily swayed.
This book is an important correction—demonstrating that the American people are consistent and sensible in their approach to China. The authors analyze a wealth of survey data going back many decades to discern how Americans view China’s rise. Benjamin Page and Tao Xie devote a chapter to each of the following topics: Chinaʼs economic growth, democracy and human rights, China’s growing global diplomatic and military power, and overall American perceptions of China.
According to the authors, American concerns about China are mostly centered on the military dimension ( pp. 58–62). While Americans do not ignore China’s rising economic clout and its impact on the United States, they seem primarily alarmed by the growing security challenge posed to the United States. Yet this does not mean that Americans view China as an enemy. Rather, American views of China are more nuanced, sophisticated, and openminded. The authors opine that, “Overall, the average American has lukewarm to cool feelings toward China” (p. 112). Of course, Americans do have opinions about what China is, where it is going, and what this is likely to mean for the United States. But analysis of the survey data suggests that the U.S. public’s views of China are balanced and sensible views largely untarnished by xenophobia or dogma.
If ordinary Americans are not unduly alarmist, what should we make of the “China threat” hyperbole and hysteria routinely delivered by “television pundits and Washington politicians” who claim to speak on behalf of all Americans (p. 112)? The authors speculate briefly before moving to consider why the “nature of the China policy debate itself” has changed (p. 112). The authors note that on foreign policy matters, it is not uncommon for there to be “substantial gaps between” popular and elite views (p. 113). Of course, public opinion does not decide foreign policy, but Page and Xie believe that it does “impose constraints” on policymakers (p. 5).
What will Chinese readers make of this book? They will probably conclude that Americans really do not care about Taiwan, and that while Americans do care about democracy and human rights, they are largely satisfied when U.S. leaders lecture their Chinese counterparts instead of exerting serious pressure. While these are overly simplistic assessments, they are essentially accurate. Still, these are dangerous conclusions, because public opinion can and does change in response to events. Thus, a repressive China that bullies a democratic Taiwan or commits atrocities against its own citizens can have swift and enduring impact on U.S. public opinion— witness the lasting influence of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (discussed on p. 101).
What should U.S. leaders take away from this book? Fundamentally, that they should not underestimate ordinary Americans. The analysis in Living with the Dragon suggests that James Mann’s The China Fantasy (New York: Viking, 2007) thesis may be off the mark. Mann claims that successive U.S. leaders have sold the American people a bill of goods—that Washington’s efforts to engage Beijing are sure to bring about Chinese democracy. But Page and Xie indicate that the U.S. public was never gullible enough to buy this idea—almost two-thirds of Americans polled in 2007 believed that if China were to democratize, “it would take…at least twenty years” (p. 74).