Public Opinion of China Plummets as Calls for Economic Decoupling Grow

President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He sign the US-China Phase One Trade Agreement on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, in the East Room of the White House. Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Public Domain 

Polls of American public opinion released in March and April reveal a deep distrust of the Chinese government, low favorability ratings of China, and a lack of confidence in China’s leader Xi Jinping. There is strong support for economic decoupling, with more than 70 percent in two polls favoring American corporations withdrawing from China. 

The Gallup poll of 1,028 American adults conducted in February and released on March 2 puts China’s favorability rating at 33 percent versus an unfavorability reading of 67 percent. The spread of 34 percentage points is the biggest gap since September 1979, when Gallup began polling American attitudes towards China. Twenty-two percent of Americans, and a plurality of Republicans, see China as America’s greatest enemy, one notch below Russia. The Gallup results reveal that, for the first time in 20 years, Americans rate the United States as the world’s leading economic power now and in 20 years. 

The Pew Research Center poll of 1,000 adults undertaken March 3-29, 2020 and released on April 21 gives even worse ratings for China:  26 percent favorable versus 66 percent unfavorable. This spread of 40 points is the biggest gap on record. More than 90 percent see China’s power and influence as a threat to the United States, and more than 70 percent have little or no confidence in Xi Jinping. Eighty-five percent of Americans view America’s trade deficit with China as a serious problem. 

Two of the most interesting findings in the Pew poll concern human rights and Hong Kong. Eighty-two percent view China’s human rights policies as a serious problem, and 57 percent view them as a very serious problem, an eight-point increase since the 2018 poll. For the first time, a major American polling organization asked for opinions regarding Hong Kong. Two-thirds view tensions between China and Hong Kong as a serious problem. 

The Harris poll of 1,993 American adults taken April 3-5, 2020 and released on April 8, 2020, reveals deep distrust of Chinese reporting on the coronavirus, with 72 percent viewing it as inaccurate versus 28 percent who view it as accurate. Likewise, 77 percent of Americans blame China for the spread of the disease. Sixty-nine percent agree with President Trump’s trade policies, but 50 percent want even tougher policies. By a slim majority, Americans do not believe that China will honor the Phase One trade agreement; if the country does not honor the agreement, nearly three-quarters of Americans support reimposing tough tariffs. If China is found to be underreporting coronavirus cases and deaths, 80 percent of Americans hold that the administration or Congress should impose unilateral sanctions against the country. 

The weekly Economist/YouGov polls have asked Americans about their perceptions of China twice since Dui Hua reported a drop in public opinions in March. The number of Americans answering that China is an enemy of the United States continually increased to an all-time high of 27 percent in the poll released on April 27 (in addition to 40 percent of respondents who view China as unfriendly). For the Economist/YouGov survey conducted March 22-24, 33 percent of respondents answered that the claim “China is responsible for the worldwide pandemic” is “definitely true,” and 35 percent responded that it is “probably true.” Answers to the “daily question” posed on April 27 reveal that 39 percent of 24,812 US adults surveyed have a more negative view of China due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Unlike the other polls which measure attitudes among adults, the McLaughlin & Associates poll, taken April 16-20, 2020 and released on April 22, 2020, measures attitudes of likely voters. Seventy percent of likely voters think that China knowingly kept Covid-19 data secret versus only 12 percent who think the country did not. The poll reveals that 75 percent of likely voters think the United States should reduce dependence on Chinese imports, 72 percent think the United States should change its trade relationship with China, and 72 percent feel that Washington should mandate that companies with essential manufacturing and technology leave the country. 

Of special concern to Beijing is that voters in battleground states tend to favor harder policies on China than voters in non-battleground states. Republicans and conservatives, who polls show are more likely to enthusiastically support their candidate than Democrats and liberals are to enthusiastically support their candidate, also favor “get tough on China” policies. 

It is unusual for so many polls of attitudes towards China to have taken place in such a short period of time. The results strongly suggest that China and its policies on a wide range of topics, notably its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, will be major issues in the upcoming presidential campaign. 

<strong> 'Economic Decoupling' Between the US and China</strong>

A survey conducted by Kearney, an American consulting company with offices in 40 countries, reveals a sharp increase in American companies relocating production from Asian countries – especially China – back to the United States in 2019. The main reason for this dramatic shift was the trade war between China and the United States, a confrontation that saw tariffs rise on billions of dollars of goods. 

A more recent survey released by the American Chambers of Commerce in China and Shanghai suggests that American companies with long histories of working in China increasingly believe that “decoupling” is possible. In autumn 2019, 66 percent of executives at these firms believed that decoupling was impossible. In the survey released in April, 44 percent of these executives now think decoupling is impossible, a drop of 22 percentage points in a period of six months. 

The main reason for this dramatic change is the disruption of supply chains caused by Covid-19. Other reasons include the continuing impact of high tariffs and the increasing possibility that China’s deep unpopularity among American consumers could prompt boycotts of Chinese products. 

Another factor is Washington’s banning American companies and government agencies from doing business with Chinese companies seen as abetting human rights abuses or posing national security risks. White House Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow went so far as to suggest, on April 10, 2020, that the United States should pay the “moving costs” of every US company that wants to leave China. 

The idea of governments incentivizing their companies to leave China is not as outlandish as it may appear at first glance. On the same day that Kudlow announced support for paying American companies’ costs to leave China, the Japanese government announced a $2.2 billion fund to help Japanese companies exit the country.


Last month, China launched a campaign nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic to raise public awareness of state securityHeld annually on April 15 since 2016, the National Security Education Day this year broadened the scope to highlight issues related to health care and biological security. As with previous years, state news media showcased series of endangering state security (ESS) casesDui Hua found over two dozen names of individuals from state news reports, most of whom were detained in the 2010s. Some of the previously unknown cases included: 

  • Wang Pihong (王丕宏) and Zhao Ruqin (赵汝芹) were sentenced to two to three years’ imprisonment for “defection and turning traitor” by the Luoyang Intermediate People’s Court on November 20, 2019. Before migrating to Canada, the couple worked in a Chinese state-owned aviation research institute and got involved in several secret projects. While allegedly possessing China’s state secrets, they found employment with a foreign-owned aviation corporation and became naturalized citizens in Canada. 
  • In a separate case, Miao Jingguo (苗敬国) was also sentenced for “defection” to two years in prison in Luoyang, Henan. Miao was alleged to have acquired a foreign nationality without notifying the Chinese government. Available sources did not specify which foreign country was involved. While in China, Miao worked as a technical specialist of a defense industry research institution.  
  • Military engineering expert Zhang Jian’ge (张建革) received a 15 years’ imprisonment sentence for espionage in Zhengzhou, Henan, in 2016. State news media sources said Zhang provided intelligence to a foreign agent during an academic trip in 2011.  

On April 30, 2020, a local court in Hunan sentenced former journalist Chen Jieren (陈杰人) to 15 years’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and multiple economic crimes due to the thousands of critical commentaries and investigative reports he posted on social media. The court alleged that Chen used the internet to disseminate false or negative information, maliciously exaggerate certain mass incidents, and vilify the Chinese Communist Party. Also convicted in the same case was his brother Chen Weiren (陈伟人), who received a four-year prison sentence. His colleague Liu Min (刘敏) was exempted from criminal punishment for the sole crime of “picking quarrels.” 

The judgment mentioned four other defendants who were dealt with in a separate case: Ai Qunhui (艾群辉)Deng Jiangxiu (邓江秀)Li Changmao (李长茂) and Liu Liqun (刘利群). Their statuses are unclear. Chen Minren (陈敏人) has been criminally detained over the same charges as his brother Chen Jieren since July 2018. 

China continues to use ESS charges to crack down on house churches. Last December, Pastor Wang Yi (王怡) of the Early Rain Covenant Church received a nine-year prison sentence for inciting subversion and illegal business activity in Chengdu. On April 2, Bethel Church pastor Zhao Huaiguo (赵怀国) was formally arrested for inciting subversion about two weeks after he was detained in Zhangjiajie. Zhao established the church in Hunan in 2007 and has repeatedly refused to join the officially sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Church. Available sources said that Zhao circumvented internet censorship to read news and commentaries about coronavirus. 


Featured: Human Rights Journal, May 6, 2020: Observations in Death Penalty Cases in China  

Du Shaoping in court. Image Credit: Haibao News 

As the world’s leading executioner, China’s death penalty law has long been scrutinized by scholars, policy makers, and human rights groups. The subject matter garners an outsized level of international attention when the cases involve foreigners. Robert Schellenberg’s case serves as a recent, highly visible example: Schellenberg is a Canadian sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and his case has seemingly been thrust into the tit-for-tat of international politics. Ironically, this increased attention comes amid a decades-long decline in the overall use of the death penalty in China.

It has been over a year since Schellenberg appealed his death sentence to the Liaoning High People’s Court in January 2019. The court appears to be delaying the judgment in order to seek leverage over the case of Meng Wanzhou. International politics are clearly at play in Schellenberg’s case, but it must be noted that delayed judgments are not uncommon in capital cases involving Chinese citizens. In some cases, defendants have waited as long as 600 days between first and second instance trials; in a rare case, 900 days elapsed before the final review by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). The length of time between trials, SPC reviews, and execution varies case by case. It is also possible for the SPC to expeditiously approve death sentences within a month after the sentences were handed down at first-instance trials. 

Understanding of how China applies the death penalty is largely lacking. To better understand these conflicting trends, Dui Hua has conducted an updated analysis of trends in the length of time between trial and execution in China’s death penalty cases. Longer times between sentence and execution could indicate a more deliberate judicial approach that allows for meaningful review of the evidence supporting a conviction and death sentence, and it also provides a window for intervention from higher courts and others to stop executions and correct wrongly decided cases. 

Continue reading here

See AlsoHuman Rights Journal: China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I and Part II


John Kamm Remembers is a feature that explores Kamm’s human rights advocacy prior to and since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999. 

Mission to Beijing: April 1992, Part II

The Beijing Great Wall Hotel. Image Credit: 

Part I, published in last month’s Digest, can be found here. 

After the meeting with Vice Minister Jin wound up, I was driven to the offices of the State Council Information Office (SCIO) for a meeting and lunch with its director, Zeng Jianhui (who would go on to be chairman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee), and its deputy director Li Yuanchao, China’s future vice president. On the way I reflected on what I had been told, which was in complete variance with the accepted narrative, which was basically that Wei Jingsheng was in bad shape, a basket case. 

I told Director Zeng and Deputy Director Li about my meeting with Vice Minister Jin and expressed my concern that people wouldn’t believe the account I had been given about Wei. “Don’t worry,” Zeng Jianhui said. “He’s a vice minister. If he lied to a foreigner, he’d be in big trouble.” 

China’s “007” 

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped by the Ministry of Public Security, on Tiananmen Square, to see Director General of the International Department Zhu Entao, someone I’d known since 1976 when he was seconded to the Guangzhou Trade Fair’s liaison office handling Americans and Europeans. Zhu, “China’s 007,” feigned ignorance of Wei’s situation, not unexpected as Wei was being held in a Ministry of Justice facility. There was bad blood between the ministries, arising from the decision in 1980 to transfer control of the country’s prisons from the Ministry of Public Security to the newly established Ministry of Justice (MOJ). 

I returned to the Great Wall Sheraton and called Nick Kristof of The New York Times. Nick and his wife Sheryl WuDunn had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests. He was and remains passionate about human rights.  

Nick joined me for drinks at the hotel bar. I read from my notes of the meeting with Vice Minister Jin, leaving nothing out. After an hour, Nick left and returned to his apartment to write up the story. It appeared in The New York Times on April 8, 1992, under the headline “China Offers Peek at Famed Prisoner.” 

The day the article appeared I met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the prosecutors. That evening I hosted a banquet in honor of my host, the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade’s (CCPIT) Liu Fugui. Gathered around the table were senior officials of the SCIO, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB, now the State Administration of Religious Affairs), the Public Security Ministry, the MOJ, and the Procuratorate. I was asked which prisoners’ release would have the biggest impact on American opinion, in Congress and in the general public. I was well prepared, and listed labor leaders, Catholics, and other big names like Wei Jingsheng. After the dinner, the official from the RAB took me aside and told me that the Catholics whose names I had raised would be released. 

As anticipated, the reaction to the Kristof article was one of disbelief and, in some quarters, hostility. A Beijing-based journalist of a rival newspaper, a friend who had written a profile about me and my work, called me at my hotel, furious that I had given the “scoop” to Kristof. A New York-based human rights activist wrote a letter to The Los Angeles Times questioning why anyone would believe anything the Chinese government told John Kamm.  

Wei Released 

Wang Mingdi 1995 at the China State Prison Work Meeting. Image Credit:  

I continued to raise Wei on future trips to Beijing, pressing for his release. I met Wang Mingdi on March 9, 1993, at the MOJ’s old headquarters, a shabby, non-descript building on a dusty lane off the road to Beijing airport.  Officers played billiards in the middle of the road in front of a bicycle repair shop. 

I asked Wang about Wei. “He is such a famous international person; many people are interested in him.” Wang told me that, while Wei was healthy, “He persists in his strong anti-government attitude. He is strongly against socialism and blames the Chinese government for everything wrong in China, even the recent East China floods.”  

Wang revealed that at the end of 1992, six months after I raised his name, Wei was driven to Beijing and taken to Science Street in Haidian District. “We let him alight and take a look. He didn’t say much, only ‘I’m from Beijing, but I don’t recognize Beijing.’” Wang Mingdi didn’t rule out an early release, though he said this would be “difficult to consider.” If Wei continued to follow prison rules, his sentence would not be extended. It was not uncommon in those days for counterrevolutionaries to have their sentences extended. 

Wei Jingsheng was paroled on September 14, 1993. The reason given was that he had obeyed prison regulations, but many observers noted his release took place one week before the decision by the International Olympics Committee on which city would be awarded the 2000 Summer Olympics. (Beijing lost out to Sydney by a single vote.) 

Wei looked well on release. A photograph taken with his brother and sister and published in a western newspaper showed a grinning, somewhat plump Wei. He had lots of hair. 

 China’s most famous dissident Wei Jingsheng (C), released six months before the end of his 15-year prison term, shown here with brother Wei Xiaotao and sister Wei Ling at their family home. Image Credit: Forrest Anderson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images 

The last time I discussed Wei with Wang Mingdi was in late October 1993, a month after the release. He told me that he had gone to the Tangshan prison holding Wei. It consisted of one big building with 20 individual cells. There was a large garden area, and a field where inmates could play ball. All prisoners had been exempted from physical labor. Wei’s cell was “full of books.” Wang felt that conditions were good enough to allow foreigners to visit, but as far as I know, this never happened. As I was leaving the meeting, Wang expressed regret that Wei had been released. “We did a bad job. We should have kept him in prison.” By then, China had lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics. 

Wei returned to activism after his September 1993 release. He was arrested again in early April 1994 after a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck in the lobby of the China World hotel, under the eyes of state security agents. He was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. After international pressure and an appeal to President Jiang Zemin by President Bill Clinton, he was released on medical parole on November 17, 1997 and promptly flown to the United States, where he remains active promoting human rights and democracy in China.