China’s continued human rights violations are a frequent cause of tension in Sino-US relations. the The United States condemned repeated treatment of ethnic minorities, in particular Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and imposed sanctions for human rights violations. How the American public perceives these human rights issues and how these perceptions will shape future relations with China is largely excluded from this discussion of the growing tensions.

To analyze public opinion on human rights in China, we conducted a survey of 934 American respondents via mTurk Amazon on March 4, 2021. Respondents were first asked: “On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 not being a problem and 5 being a serious problem, how big is the problem that you see today as human rights violations in China? “

While the question may be suggestive, assuming the public is aware of human rights issues in China and that they exist, we find that the vast majority of respondents (81.9%) consider Chinese violations as a serious problem (a 4 or 5 on the scale). ). Broken down further, Democrats and Republicans shared a similar sentiment (82% and 84% respectively). These findings demonstrate that human rights violations in China are pressing issues that could potentially affect policy.

In the past, the United States has taken a hard power approach to things like “Trade, security, currency, maritime claims and intellectual property” but a soft power, or “lead by example,” approach to human rights issues. However, as the gravity of the situation in western China becomes increasingly known, the United States’ response has gone beyond soft power, impose economic sanctions on some Chinese officials as a punishment.

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Next, the interviewees were asked, “In a nutshell, what do you think is the most pressing human rights issue in China?” The figure below shows the most common words or phrases mentioned in the open response, with larger words appearing more frequently.

Over 96% of respondents offered specific examples or considered general human rights violations to be a problem in China. Of the responses, about 12% indicated detention camps in western China. Others have pointed to the mistreatment of workers in western China, where it is known factories dependent on forced labor. Overall, respondents were more likely to specify their concerns about Uyghurs than any other religious or ethnic minority, with almost 15% of responses specifying Uyghurs by name, compared with just 3% indicating any other ethnic group. This suggests that Americans are increasingly aware of the plight and abuse of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where, a few years earlier, the region and its people were barely known.

Finally, we randomly assigned respondents to one of four versions of a question about human rights in China, so that we could identify how framing can influence perceptions. The versions were:

Version 1: Recent reports claim that women in western China are systematically raped in internment camps. Should the United States impose economic sanctions on China?

Version 2: Recent reports claim that Muslim women in western China are systematically raped in internment camps. Should the United States impose economic sanctions on China?

Version 3: Recent reports claim that women in western China are systematically raped in internment camps. Should the United States impose economic sanctions on China, even if it worsens relations between the United States and China?

Version 4: Recent reports claim that Muslim women in western China are systematically raped in internment camps. Should the United States impose economic sanctions on China, even if it worsens relations between the United States and China?The data shows clear majorities responding in support of sanctions across all versions, with version 3 having the highest support (81.5%), while version 4 generating the lowest (71.7%). ). This pattern persists when separated by party or gender, further suggesting tolerance for sanctions even if relations with China deteriorate as a result.

These figures suggest that the American public is increasingly aware of the problems related to human rights violations in China, possibly due to increased media coverage. Data on U.S. perceptions of human rights in China show that many mass incarceration and surveillance of Uyghurs is a serious human rights crisis. However, the increase in negative American media coverage on these issues has also influenced China’s perception of the United States. Research conducted in 2019 on the impact of pressure on human rights in authoritarian states demonstrates the propensity of citizens to become defensive when their country is criticized, especially when such criticism comes from a perceived rival. Meanwhile, the more human rights violations in China are highlighted and discussed, the more U.S. support for policies such as sanctions will continue.

So, as the United States continues to push China on human rights and Chinese citizens become less interested in what is seen as anti-China rhetoric, bilateral relations are likely to continue to deteriorate.

Studies found that resilient bilateral relations require mutual identification, while perceptions of another state as “Other” in terms of values ​​or culture had the opposite effect. In addition to influencing how Americans view China, a perception of “otherness” may further affect how Americans view religious groups in China and the extent to which Americans are prepared to act to help them. persecuted religious groups. While support for sanctions was weakest when our investigation specifically identified the persecution of Muslim women, that could change as growing recognition of these atrocities push Americans to perceive China as “the other.” With public support for continued US pressure on China in the face of a recalcitrant Chinese government and Chinese public rejection of human rights claims, bilateral relations will continue to struggle.