China’s image in the United States is taking a beating. The latest Pew Global Attitudes poll, released June 13, indicates that just 40 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, down 11 points from last year to the lowest grade since 2008.

The Pew results show a continuation of negative views reported in February by Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post(PDF). Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans viewed China unfavorably—the most negative rating in more than 10 years—and nearly 25 percent thought of China as America’s greatest enemy (only Iran was named more often).

A few days after Gallup conducted its survey, ABC News/Washington Post asked Americans whether they had “a favorable or unfavorable impression of China.” Again, more than half of the responses were negative: 52 percent were “unfavorable,” while 37 percent were “favorable.”

A slew of polls indicate that Americans see China as an economic threat and believe that bilateral trade has caused a loss of American jobs. There is also unease about China’s military buildup. No major polls have been taken on American views of China’s human rights record, but given the barrage of negative news—self-immolations in Tibet, long prison sentences for dissident writers, the “suicide” of democracy advocate Li Wangyang (李旺阳), and the furor over forced abortions—it is almost certainly bad.

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called for the United States to play “a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.” The polls explain much of Romney’s full-bore attack on Chinese economic, military, and human rights policies. In a February 16 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal—timed to coincide with President Barack Obama’s meeting with Vice President, and presumed next president, Xi Jinping in the White House—the Republican candidate calls the country a “prosperous tyranny” and repeats the mantra that he will declare China a currency manipulator on “day one of [his] presidency.” Romney campaign operatives are convinced that his attacks on China, which his opponents in the primaries generally eschewed, enabled the former Massachusetts governor to eke out narrow wins in Ohio and Michigan.

But Romney’s rhetoric on China doesn’t match his record. As a senior executive at Bain Capital, governor of Massachusetts, and chairman of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Romney extolled the value of engaging the country and rejected calls to ban China from the games as punishment for its human rights record.

China’s leaders are well aware that US politicians tend to take a harder line while campaigning than they do in office, but the Chinese may have decided not to take any chances. Informed sources in Beijing say that the main reason the Chinese government let self-taught lawyer and rights advocate Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) leave China with his family was to hand a diplomatic victory to the Obama administration. (The day Chen left the American Embassy for an uncertain fate in a Chinese hospital was described by Romney as “a day of shame” for the Obama administration and “a dark day for freedom.”) Whether China’s forbearance will extend to the mooted sale of advanced F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan—something Obama could well approve as a job-creating measure—remains to be seen.