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Frank Newport: Public opinion of China past and present

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Frank Newport  

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, New Jersey. He is in charge of the Gallup Poll assessment of American public opinion, which has been continuously measuring public moods and attitudes in this country since the 1930's.

CNN Moderator: Good morning Frank Newport. What have been Americans' most recent opinions of China?

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    Frank Newport: American opinion about China has been fairly mixed to negative over the last ten years. We have fairly consistently tracked public opinion to China in the context of other countries and find that China currently ranks in the bottom third of the countries we have Americans rate. I should point out that these data are prior to the current spy plane crisis, and we're not sure what impact that may ultimately have, but we can say that Americans are split as of our last poll on China, with only 45% giving China a favorable rating, while 48% give it an unfavorable rating. That puts China below, for example, such countries as Russia, Viet Nam, and Taiwan, in Americans' estimation.

    Question from chat room: How much does the average American know about China? It's a big place.

    Frank Newport: There is absolutely no question that Americans generally have low levels of factual knowledge about other countries and international events. For example, relatively few Americans can name the head of state for any country in the world, other than the U.S. But I believe Americans have generalized perceptions, which can be important to look at. Clearly, in the case of China, we have seen ups and downs in American public opinion coincident with events that have occurred there, indicating that Americans are paying at least some attention. Favorable opinions of China shot up in 1989 after Bush the elder visited there, and then plummeted after Tiananmen Square.

    Question from chat room: Frank, what does your latest poll say about U.S. - China relations?

    Frank Newport: We have asked about U.S-China relations in several different ways. Our focus, to some degree, has been on trade and human rights, because that has been the relevant issue before this latest incident. We do know, for example, that Americans rate China's respect for human rights quite low, but when asked what America's role should be relating to human rights, our latest poll last year actually showed Americans saying that the U.S. should focus on maintaining good relations with China, rather than taking strong stands on human rights in that country. But, as is always the case, that is to some degree dependent on how the question is phrased.

    On a different issue, Americans have been very mixed about what China should do relating to Taiwan. In a poll last year, the public in this country was a little more likely to say that the U.S. should NOT defend Taiwan militarily against China, if the occasion arose, rather than coming to Taiwan's defense.

    Question from chat room: What is American opinion about the U.S. having diplomatic ties with Communist China instead of democratic Taiwan?

    Frank Newport: That's an important question, but we have not recently asked that, explicitly. As I just mentioned, we don't find a strong sentiment that the U.S. should favor Taiwan militarily over China. We have not recently, however, asked Americans about the nuances of diplomatic relations with China, versus diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

    CNN Moderator: Can you give us an overview of American opinion of China in an historical context?

    Frank Newport: Yes, indeed. The two high points for Americans' positive opinions about China in recent years have been in 1979, when the Jimmy Carter administration officially recognized China, and in 1989, ten years later, when President Bush visited the country. At both those periods of time, roughly two-thirds or more of Americans had a favorable opinion of China. But later in 1989, as I mentioned, favorable opinions of China plummeted, and for the last 10 or 11 years, have been less than a majority every time we've asked about the country. We do not have the same type of data from the more distant past, such as the 1930's, or during World War II, or in the later '40s, when Mao and the Communists took over. At that point, we at Gallup were not asking these perception questions as regularly as we do now.

    Question from chat room: What's this crisis doing to public opinion about the Bush administration's handling of difficult situations and issues?

    Frank Newport: Our last Bush approval measure was from last Wednesday a week ago, so we're waiting for this weekend to see what impact it may be having on public perception of the Bush administration. One point to remember is that we very often see a rally effect when the U.S. is involved internationally in these kinds of situations. That would suggest that we may see Bush's job approval actually go up in the short term. Jimmy Carter's job approval shot up when the hostages were taken in Iran in 1979. Gerald Ford's went up after the Mayaguez incident in his administration. John F. Kennedy's even went up after the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. So again, in the short term, we might see an uptake in Bush's job approval.

    The longer-term impact on Americans' perceptions of Bush are unknowable at this point. As the media have been quick to point out, this is his first major foreign policy test, and it is certainly possible that it could help solidify American public opinion of Bush in either a more positive or a more negative direction, depending on how it plays out.

    CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts or interesting facts for us today?

    Frank Newport: Well, good news and bad news relating to the Master's tournament! Only 4% of Americans, as of a week or two ago, said that golf was their favorite sport to watch. And despite Tiger Woods, that really hasn't changed much over the last 10 years. By the way, football dominates. On the other hand, last year, when we asked Americans who is the greatest athlete in the world, Tiger Woods dominated far ahead of anybody else. So, I think that suggests some interest in the tournament going on this weekend.

    CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Frank Newport!

    Frank Newport: It's good to be with you. We'll talk to you soon.



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