SHANGHAI — A study released today found that 41.2 percent of Chinese consumers have a more negative view of the U.S. following President Trump’s first month in office. Additionally, 50.7 percent of Chinese consumers held a neutral position and 8.1 percent viewed the U.S. more positively, according to a joint study by China Skinny and Findoout.
The online survey was conducted between Feb. 21 and 23. The companies polled 2,000 Chinese consumers, evenly split between male and female, with 56 percent of respondents living in tier one or tier two cities and 70 percent between the ages of 18 and 35 years.
Buying American property and stocks, traveling to the U.S., and studying in the U.S. were the three categories most negatively impacted, with respective 17.7 percent, 13.9 percent and 10 percent declines in net sentiment from Chinese consumers. The net sentiment decline for American beauty products stood at 5.2 percent, whereas the net sentiment for American fashion and accessories dropped by 0.8 percent.
Trump has had a fraught relationship with Beijing since launching his bid for presidency. Before his inauguration, he angered Chinese officials by taking a telephone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, going against the “one China” principle the U.S. has employed since the late Seventies. On the campaign trail, Trump also threatened to label China a currency manipulator. However, he hasn’t implemented this since taking office. The risk of a trade war between the two countries looms large, yet both are important markets for one another, with China being the fastest-growing major market for the U.S.
Although the net sentiment decline for American beauty products and American fashion and accessories is relatively weak, a drop in the number of Chinese tourists and students in the U.S. could have knock-on effects for international brands and retailers as well as impact American companies.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the impact if tourists and students decrease on fashion and beauty as these are often the strongest advocates of these products in China — they are sharing the products on social media and then talking about them when they return to the Mainland. They are also big contributors to the daigou trade [buying products overseas and bringing them back to China], which drives a lot of product awareness and preference,” said Mark Tanner, founder and managing director of China Skinny, the marketing, research and online agency that co-authored the study.
“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, but retailers would be wise to monitor sentiment toward America. If it continues to decline, they may have to tone down American focus in positioning and play on other factors that are origin neutral, much like Uniqlo has done in the past,” Tanner said.
The boycotting or banning of brands from a country that has fallen out of favor with Beijing is not unprecedented. In 2012, a territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands led to demonstrations in China and the boycott of many Japanese brands. More recently, it has been speculated that South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, antiballistic missile system has resulted in a ban on some of the country’s imports into China.
“Based on the survey the negative sentiment doesn’t look to strike as close to the heart as the Japanese territorial disputes in 2012 or current THAAD issues, but if Trump implements more anti-China policy, it could go that way,” Tanner said.
But many on the Mainland are skeptical there is negative sentiment toward the U.S. following the change in administration.
“After the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the U.S.-China air collision in 2001, indeed there was some Chinese public resentment, but soon the situation improved. Over time, Chinese interest in touring and buying in America has much increased. Personally, I sense much has improved in China-U.S. relations now, comparing with what was in 1999 and 2001,” said Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University.
“Given the huge size and extraordinarily interdependent and interactive nature of Chinese-U.S. economic and trade relations, in my view, it is almost impossible for a South Korea/THAAD-style Chinese ‘boycott’ of U.S. commodities to happen between China and the U.S. — just like what has not happened between China and Japan. As of now, even Trump has been more cautious in action toward China than what he had delivered in words. Unless either side commits silly and huge mistakes, I do not see an emerging crisis in Chinese-American relations,” said Chen Jian, global distinguished professor of history at NYU Shanghai.
It is still the early days of the Trump administration and, as of yet, there have not been any policies implemented that are detrimental to Chinese consumers’ interests. It appears, from a historical context, that Chinese consumers are reactive rather than proactive, but there have been instances in the past when sentiment toward a country has turned.
“So far, while it’s fair to say that Chinese consumers are discussing the political situation in the U.S., very few have elected to change their buying behavior as a result. So, at least in the near-term, I don’t think U.S. brands or retailers will suffer. I think where there would be cause for concern is if Trump does enact trade policies that directly hurt Chinese brands. If that happens, we may see consumer sentiment change and actually see a significant number of people change what they are buying. But at present, it doesn’t seem to be happening,” said Benjamin Cavender, principal at China Market Research Group.