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The Times Poll : Americans' High Regard for China Abruptly Sours

June 18, 1989|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Staff Writer

The high regard Americans had for China only three months ago has turned bitterly sour in the wake of the Communist regime's bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators, according to The Times Poll.

In a dramatic turnaround, three-fourths of the American public now have an unfavorable "overall opinion of China," the poll found. In sharp contrast, three-fourths of Americans held a favorable opinion in March.

But Americans strongly support President Bush's restrained response to the massacre in Beijing and to the Chinese leadership's escalating crackdown against the pro-democracy movement there and in other cities. They emphatically endorse the President's decision not to recall the U.S. ambassador from Beijing.

In fact, The Times' nationwide survey of 1,417 adults found that Bush's popularity has increased across America--probably not only because of his handling of the China crisis but also because of his recent successful trip to Europe, where he met with leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and proposed a major reduction of conventional arms by East and West.

The two-day telephone survey, which ended Thursday night, has a margin of error of three percentage points in either direction.

Of those interviewed, 78% expressed an unfavorable opinion of the People's Republic of China. Only 16% had a favorable opinion. This represented a plunge in American esteem: Just three months ago, the Gallup Poll found that 72% of Americans had a favorable view of China, with only 13% holding an unfavorable view.

Thus, the televised scenes of combat troops moving against unarmed civilians in Beijing, as well as daily reports of the roundup of dissidents, threaten to erase more than a decade of steady improvement in Americans' regard for China.

The current image corresponds to negative attitudes a Gallup Poll found in 1976--four years after then-President Richard M. Nixon had reopened communications with China by dramatically traveling to Beijing, but still three years before full diplomatic relations were restored.

Most people interviewed in The Times survey last week reported that they are paying "a lot" of attention to the turmoil in China. And the more attention they are paying, the less they like the country.

Very few people (12%) now consider China to be "a safe place for Americans to invest their money," despite a doubling of U.S.-China trade during the 1980s. Fewer yet (9%) regard China as a safe place for American tourists to travel.

The tarnishing of China's image also appears to be rubbing off on the Soviet Union, which just before the violence in Beijing had ended a 30-year freeze in relations with the Chinese Communists, the survey indicated. The Times Poll found that Americans' view of the Soviet Union is now about equally divided between favorable and unfavorable. Three months ago, according to the Gallup Poll, the attitude of Americans toward the Soviet Union was favorable by a 2-to-1 margin.

Reminder for Americans

"The violent events in China may well be reminding Americans that communism can be repressive when pushed hard enough," observed Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis.

Americans--watching the new openness under Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the Solidarity trade union's victory in Polish elections--seem torn between two schools of thought, the survey found: A significant share (44%) believe that "the fundamental nature of communism is really changing and moving toward democracy," but a nearly equal share (41%) feel that "no real change in communism is taking place."

The prevailing attitude is that, despite the China crackdown, the worldwide "threat of communism" is no greater--and no less--than it has been in recent years.

Americans approved of Bush's response to the China crackdown. Three-fourths approved of his decision to halt U.S. military sales to China and to suspend visits between the two nations' military leaders. The vast majority said that the President could not have prevented the crackdown by speaking out earlier. And, by a ratio of 5 to 3, people think Congress should stay out of the issue and not attempt to legislate further sanctions.

But Americans overwhelmingly want the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to continue protecting pro-democratic dissident Fang Lizhi, who requested and was granted asylum. The protection has added strain to already tense U.S.-China diplomatic relations. Americans also adamantly favor allowing the roughly 40,000 Chinese students currently in the United States to stay here "if they fear going back" home.

Doubts Over China Movement

People have doubts about the ultimate fate of China's pro-democracy movement. Fewer than 4 in 10 believe that "the student push for democracy will win out in the end."

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