DANIEL VAUGHAN: The coming populist backlash against China

Populism is a finicky force to reckon with in politics. It’s hard to pin down when exactly something triggers a populist feeling — but when a populist moment does arrive, and in full strength, there’s little that can stop it.

The most conspicuous emotion involved in a populist movement is anger, whether toward elites or other countries. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there’s a lot of anger building toward China.

China realizes this; that’s why they’re engaging in a global charm offensive. But while China may be able to find sympathetic listeners internationally for this charm offensive, there’s less evidence the American people will feel the same. And if the American people pivot hard against China, it will be as a populist backlash against trade and other policies that the U.S. has with China, which are now hurting the United States.

Put another way, the number of people angry at Donald Trump for the trade war between the U.S. and China is going to drop precipitously.

Gallup has tracked American sentiment toward China for decades, and in March, they released polling results from the weeks preceding — well before the worst of the coronavirus pandemic had hit the U.S., prompting widespread cancellations and shutdowns. The results were already shocking. Gallup reported:

Thirty-three percent of Americans currently have a favorable opinion of China, a 20-percentage-point decline since 2018 and an eight-point drop in the past year. China’s current favorable rating ties prior readings from 1997 and 2000 as the lowest in Gallup’s trend, dating back to 1979. It is similar to the 34% reading in 1989, taken after the Chinese government’s crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Remember, this polling was released on March 2, 2020. At that point, Americans already had the same views of China that they did when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) brutally murdered protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The late-’90s surge of unfavorability was over trade deals the United States had that ended up helping China.

And it’s not just that Americans view China unfavorably — it’s that they view China as a direct threat to America. Twenty-three percent of Americans believe that Russia is the top threat to America, and 22% say China, according to Gallup. The rest of that chart gets filled in by countries like North Korea and Iran.

In short, China is now in the same ranks among the worst countries on Earth.

Indeed, public sentiment has shifted against the CCP in America. And it will continue to change in the coming weeks and months. Economic estimates from the Wall Street Journal say that 29% of the entire U.S. economy is now shut down. Eight in 10 American counties are in lockdown orders, and all those counties put together represent 96% of the total national economic output. The WSJ called it “an unprecedented shutdown of commerce that economists say has never occurred on such a wide scale.”

That economic loss is not alone. Occurring alongside it is the loss of life. According to the COVID Tracking Project, a team of independent journalists and volunteers compiling all data from states, the United States has experienced 1,000 or more deaths each day since April 1. That number is growing. I have friends who have lost family members to this virus. At some point, most Americans will know someone impacted by this virus, whether by severe sickness or death.

Economic loss and death would be enough to trigger a backlash against the CCP. But they haven’t stopped there. CCP officials are now spreading a narrative, on U.S. social media sites blocked in China, that the United States military is the reason the virus spread in China.

As The New York Times said of the accusation, “There is not a shred of evidence to support that.”

It’s nothing but pure propaganda. In fact, the Daily Caller reports that according to Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist, “it’s possible that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab.” He pointed to statements by Shi Zhengli, China’s leading virologist, who said in March that “she lost sleep worrying that the virus could have leaked from her lab in Wuhan after she first learned of the virus in December,” the Daily Caller reported. Furthermore, “Shi now tells those who share the concerns she once had to ‘shut their stinking mouths.'”

That gives us a mixture of economic pain, loss of life, propaganda that smears the United States, and evidence that China has covered up their wrongdoing. These ingredients together create a potent recipe for a fit of populist anger toward China. And it should be said now: that anger is not unjustified. The entire world has reason to hold hostility toward China.

How that populist anger will manifest and impact politics is unknown right now. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. But once we get on the downhill swing of the virus, everyone will turn toward the country responsible for the deaths, economic harm, and more. And China will deserve every bit of what they get.