Fraught U.S.-China relations will continue entering 2022. This year, leaders of both countries will be focused on domestic politics, the ongoing pandemic and uneven economic recoveries — challenges that have further added to existing bilateral tensions.
It is an important political year in both countries. U.S. President Joe Biden is facing midterm elections with the Republicans likely to gain seats in the House and potentially the Senate, complicating his administration’s ability to implement its policy agenda. By contrast, China's Xi Jinping is on the verge of assuming a third term as President and is strongly positioned to ensure that his vision for China is carried through.
Politics aside, this systemic dynamic – diminution vs consolidation of control — is reflected in the views that American and Chinese citizens have about their respective governments.
Politics aside, this systemic dynamic – diminution vs consolidation of control — is reflected in the views that American and Chinese citizens have about their respective governments. While accurate numbers are always hard to come by in China, our 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer allows us to follow the trends. Trust among Chinese citizens in their government is a record 91 percent, the highest seen in a decade. The result is even more striking compared to the U.S., where trust in government is at 39 percent.
Focusing on China, several internal and external factors explain why popular support was so high this past year.
China was the first major economy to reopen — and thrive — after the Covid-19 outbreak. It was the only major economy to see growth in 2020, and that momentum continued throughout most of 2021. The centralized system of governance allowed Chinese officials to take draconian measures — shutting down travel, instituting a zero-tolerance policy and strict quarantines, and monitoring its citizens —but the swift action and success in rapidly bringing the pandemic under control created confidence with Chinese citizens.
For much of China, life was relatively back to normal by spring of 2020. People were back to work, children returned to the classroom, and new tracking technologies on smartphones enabled individuals to move around with relative confidence that any outbreaks could be traced. The government rolled out the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use through the state-owned enterprise, China National Pharmaceutical Group, in the summer of 2020, rapidly distributing it throughout the country in early 2021. At one stage, China was vaccinating a staggering 20 million individuals a day.
China has since helped vaccinate the world. Chinese vaccines currently account for almost half of the over 7 billion shots distributed globally. Despite the controversial beginnings, the government’s “vaccine diplomacy” played well at home and contributed to confidence in the government.
Beyond Covid, in 2021, the Chinese government made progress in other areas. China’s war against pollution has seen real results. For the first time, this year, Beijing has met the state air quality standards as have other parts of the country.
President Xi’s anticorruption campaign — netting over 100,000 individuals — has provided a sense of a more level playing field for individuals and business. In China, over 90 percent of businesses are small or medium-sized, yet they are the engine of growth for the country. This is one reason why Xi has been focused on eliminating barriers and encouraging growth of the private sector, while cracking down on monopoly and other anti-competitive behaviors.
Yet the past two years were not all smooth sailing for China. Outside the country, China faces a growing “trust deficit.” As part of its early vaccine diplomacy, Chinese firms exported millions of masks and other emergency materials, often to lesser developed countries. Unfortunately, quality issues reflected poorly on the Chinese companies distributing them. The Chinese government’s response to international criticism has increasingly tended toward so called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” reflecting the growing sense of nationalism and pride within China, but which has also further exacerbated geopolitical tensions, including with the United States, Australia and the European Union.
In the United States, President Biden largely continued his predecessor’s China policy. Since taking office, the administration has expanded sanctions on Chinese technology companies, implemented new accounting rules for U.S.-listed Chinese firms, and kept in place over $360 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports. While it is essential that the United States (and other countries) protect sectors and technologies vital to their national security interests, the implication of some of these policies has been to propagate the view that Chinese firms overall are bad actors.
Rightly or wrongly, Chinese firms are often viewed as the representatives of the Chinese government. Given the tensions of the past year — both at the governmental level as well as at the firm level — the perception of China Inc, or trust outside of China of its firms, has dropped to a low of 31 percent.
Here there is an interesting contrast. In the developed economies surveyed, people expect firms to take on many of the social and economic issues that are traditionally the responsibility of the government. But in China, people still trust the government to remain the leader on social and economic issues and — at least abroad — Chinese companies have harmed rather than helped confidence in the country.
This year will remain a challenging one for U.S.-China relations, arguably the most important relationship globally. There is an obvious trust gap. Yet finding ways to work together rather than in conflict is important to effectively address many of the common global challenges — from the lingering pandemic to climate change, global economic growth, and nuclear proliferation. Xi Jinping enters the year in a strong domestic position. And while President Biden is facing political challenges at home, the combined confidence in the U.S. business community with the U.S. government leaves the United States well placed to work with China in tackling many of these global challenges — if both leaders have the political will to do so.
Deborah Lehr is CEO, Edelman Global Advisory.