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Biden meets Xi Jinping this week as more Americans see China as a critical threat

President Biden and China's President Xi Jinping during their last meeting a year ago in Bali, Indonesia.
Saul Loeb
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and China's President Xi Jinping during their last meeting a year ago in Bali, Indonesia.

As President Biden meets this week in the San Francisco Bay area with China's leader Xi Jinping, a long-running global affairs survey has found Americans are more worried about the threats posed by China than they have been at any point since 1990.

Concern about the rise of China has been an early feature in the 2024 U.S. presidential race. Some 58% of Americans say it's a critical threat, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which shared its survey data exclusively with NPR ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting on Wednesday.

"A record level of Americans now see China as a critical threat to the United States," said Dina Smeltz, senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council. The council has been polling Americans on China since 1990.

"It's also the first time in any of our polls that we saw that a majority — some of it's a slim majority — of Republicans, Democrats and independents all see China as a threat," Smeltz told NPR.

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The concerns are particularly pronounced among Republicans

China has loomed large in the Republican primary race, with candidates battling it out in ads and debates to see who can be toughest.

The Chicago Council found that concerns about China are particularly pronounced among Republicans, with 71% saying China is a critical threat, and an overwhelming majority saying U.S. leaders aren't paying enough attention. That compares to 52% of Democrats and 53% of independents describing China a critical threat.

This rising concern about China may be as much about political leaders talking about the threats as the public coming to it on their own. Former President Donald Trump talked about China constantly during the 2016 campaign and made tariffs on Chinese goods one of his signature policies.

Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Nov. 8 in Hialeah, Fla.
Alon Skuy / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Nov. 8 in Hialeah, Fla.

Then came the COVID pandemic, which Trump — now the frontrunner in the Republican primary — still refers to as the "China virus."

So the spike in Republican concern is not surprising, said Elizabeth Saunders, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. "We have so much evidence in political science that people pick the candidate they like, and then they adopt that candidate's views as the ones that they prefer."

Being tough on China helps build a political narrative

While foreign policy is not the kind of top-of-mind policy issue that drives voter decision — like abortion rights or economic issues — it is something that helps presidential candidates build a narrative of being tough and standing up for America, Saunders said.

"At the moment, China is the easy thing to be tough against," she said.

At a rally in South Florida last week, Trump peppered his long and meandering campaign speech with references to China, warnings about "World War Three," and assertions that things would be better if he were in charge.

Republican presidential candidates former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis square off during the Nov. 8 GOP debate in Miami.
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Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis square off during the Nov. 8 GOP debate in Miami.

On the GOP debate stage last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went after opponent Nikki Haley for allowing a Chinese company to acquire land near a military base when she was governor of South Carolina, echoing a negative campaign ad his super PAC has had in heavy rotation.

"We need to get serious about the top threat that this country faces, which is the Chinese Communist Party," he said.

Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, has pledged to cut off trade with China to try to stop fentanyl imports. She hit back at DeSantis implying he was soft on China because he wouldn't commit to doing the same. At a recent campaign event in New Hampshire, she said China is "on the march," raising alarms about its weapons development.

"They're all trying to out-hawk each other," said Saunders.

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Biden has also tried to put China front and center

President Biden has also sought to elevate China as his top foreign policy concern, though his administration's attention has often been diverted to other parts of the globe, including marshalling support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and more recently, backing Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

Biden has focused on building alliances in the Indo-Pacific to counter its might, and kept Trump's tariffs in place while boosting subsidies for U.S. companies making microchips and electric vehicles.

"China is determined to dominate the electric-vehicle market by using unfair trade practices, but I will not let them," Biden told a group of United Auto Workers union members in Illinois last week. "I promise you."

President Biden speaks to autoworkers in Belvidere, Ill. on Nov. 9.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden speaks to autoworkers in Belvidere, Ill. on Nov. 9.

Earlier this year in a closed-door fundraiser Biden described Xi as a dictator, adding strain to an already tense relationship. But most of the time he takes a more measured tone.

"We seek to responsibly manage competition between our countries so it does not tip into conflict," Biden said at the U.N. General Assembly in September. "I've said we are for de-risking, not decoupling with China."

Saunders said she expects Republicans are already crafting their attacks on Biden for his meeting with Xi to describe him as being weak on China.

But for Biden, the political risk may not be very high. Even though voters are worried about China, domestic issues like crime, immigration, the economy, abortion rights and pure partisanship are far more likely to drive voting decisions.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.