Youth Attitudes and U.S.-China Competition: The Effect of Relative Power

This analysis draws from Dr. Qin Pang’s coauthored article, ‘China’s Growing Power Makes Its Youth Hawkish? Evidence from the Chinese Youth’s Attitudes toward the US and Japan’, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Contemporary China, accessible here.

Dr. Pang is affiliated with the the School of International Relations at Sun Yat-Sen University. She researches Chinese nationalism, China’s economic relations with East Asian countries, and China’s state-society relations. 

How does China’s growing power affect the attitude of its youth toward its perceived rivals like the U.S. and Japan? Does China’s growing power consistently facilitate its young generation’s support for the China’s revisionist policies aiming to challenge the status quo? In my recent coauthored paper, ‘China’s Growing Power Makes Its Youth Hawkish? Evidence from the Chinese Youth’s Attitudes toward the US and Japan’ published in the Journal of Contemporary China, we examine these questions through an original survey.

A changing power balance between states is widely considered to be a source of international conflict, as it can lead to increased threat perceptions among country’s publics. In the case of China, a dominant view assumes that China’s increasing power makes society more supportive of nationalist mobilization, which increases Chinese threat perceptions of primary rivals like the U.S. and Japan. However, this ‘growing power–nationalism’ mechanism has overlooked inter- and intra-state differences, including among China’s most nationalist group: its youth.

Reassessing Conventional Wisdom

The dominant view in political science and media embraces two related assumptions. First, Chinese youth are widely homogenized as nationalistic with a great sense of pride in China’s growing power and a deep-seated distrust of regional neighbors. Second, these nationalist youth are often thought of as a kind of social power that encourages the Chinese government to adopt a tougher stance on certain foreign policy issues, such as territorial disputes in East Asia and the Sino-U.S. rivalry. Our study challenges these assumptions by subdividing the Chinese youth along the axes of feelings (friendly or hostile) for the U.S. and Japan, and along worldviews (offensive realist, defensive realist, and liberal). It then explores and compares how these different sub-groups’ perceive China’s relative power and how this affects their threat perceptions towards China’s key rivals. Through a large-scale survey of Chinese elite youth, it reveals an alternative mechanism through which power asymmetry may affect the young generation’s attitudes toward the U.S. and Japan.

The existing literature in international relations argues that states and their people feel threatened when their opponent’s power increases. This is well explained by realist theory. Due to the anarchic nature of the international system, states have no defined set of friends or foes friends as any country could present a threat as interests change over time. As a result, greater relative power brings a greater sense of security and lower levels of threat perception because states and publics feel that they can protect themselves. Along these lines, we propose that the more strongly respondents judge China’s power relative to the U.S. and Japan (i.e., the more strong they perceive China to be in relative terms), the lower their threat perceptions of the U.S. and Japan should be.

For each country, we started by categorizing survey respondents into three groups by their answers to whether they believe the U.S. or Japan is China’s friend. We found that around 15%, 72% and 12% considered these countries hostile, neutral and friendly, respectively (Table 1). We then assessed how what level of the threat they perceive from the U.S. and Japan. The ‘neutral feeling’ group is the largest, constituting the ‘silent majority’ who act as a “stabilizer” against swings in public opinion. The three groups clearly diverge in their threat perceptions. The ‘hostile feeling’ group, as expected, perceives the strongest threat. Interestingly, the ‘friendly feeling’ group perceives a stronger threat than the neutral group. This may be attributed to their better understanding of the two foreign countries and more concern about their relative power vis-à-vis China.

We also find that threat perceptions diverge across worldview groups (Table 2) . The respondents are grouped into ‘offensive realists’, ‘defensive realists’ and ‘liberals’ based on three indicators: their realist, liberal and militaristic tendencies. These are measured along scales used by social scientists. Offensive realists perceive the strongest threat, followed by defensive realists, and liberals scored the lowest.

Table 1. Means of threat perception among different feeling groups

This country threatens China?

(7 as ‘very strong threat’- 1 ‘not at all’)



hostile feeling

6.35 (14.4%)


neutral feeling



friendly feeling




5.86 (100%)


Note: the percentages show the distribution of different feeling groups for each country.

Table 2. Means (SD) of threat perception among four worldview groups

This country threatens China?

(7 as ‘very strong threat’- 1 ‘not at all’)




6.14 (.94)

5.45 (1.04)


5.93 (.95)

5.25 (1.07)


5.74 (.95)

4.99 (1.05)


5.94 (.84)

5.17 (1.09)

How does the perception of power asymmetry between China and the US/ Japan affect the threat perceptions toward the two states?

This study builds two separate structural equation models for the US and Japan to test the directional relationship between power asymmetry and threat perception. As Table 3 shows, the respondents’ perceptions of China’s power asymmetry with the US and Japan have a significantly positive effect on their threat perceptions (US: b1 = .65, SE = .08, p < .001; Japan: b1 = .29, SE = .06, p < .001.). Namely, the stronger respondents perceive the power advantage of the two countries vis-à-vis China, the higher their threat perceptions are. Conversely, when respondents are aware of China’s growing power relative to the two established powers, their threat perceptions decrease. In other words, they feel more confident and safer.

Table 3. The path coefficients of the main effect model (M0) for US and Japan




Power threat perception



b1 power asymmetry



Control: gender & nationalism









Control: feeling & worldview



b2 feeling



b31 offensive



b32 defensive



b33 un-identifiable



Note: Since gender and nationalism are not related with threat perception for the US, they are not included in the US model. All the coefficients were unstandardized. # p < .1, * p ≤ .05, ** p ≤ .01, *** p ≤ .001.

Do feelings and worldview moderate the effect of power asymmetry on threat perception?

As for feelings, we expect that the correlation between power and threat perception (i.e., greater relative power leading to lower threat perception) should be stronger for the ‘friendly feeling’ group than for the ‘hostile feeling’ group, especially in the case of Japan. In other words, for Japan, the ‘friendly feeling’ group is likely to downplay its possible offensive intentions. Their threat perceptions therefore are mainly derived from comparisons about state power. When they perceive Japan as relatively weak, they will deem the country a lesser threat. The hostile feeling group, however, considers Japan as ‘ill-intentioned and thus unsafe. Their threat perceptions are grounded more in their evaluation of the country’s offensive intention and are thus less sensitive to changes in relative power.

Such differences in threat perceptions, however, may be absent in the case of the U.S. This is because the U.S. advantage over China with respect to economic and military power is so evident that both the ‘friendly feeling’ and ‘hostile feeling’ groups are aware. Even the ‘friendly feeling’ group cannot readily disregard the U.S.’ offensive intention. Both groups judge the U.S.’ threat by evaluating its capabilities and offensive intention. Moreover, given the lesser role of historical rivalry and territorial disputes in Sino-U.S. relations than in Sino-Japanese relations, the ‘friendly feeling’ and ‘hostile feeling’ groups should diverge less when evaluating the U.S.’ offensive intentions. As such, the effect of power asymmetry on threat perception of the U.S. between the two groups should not be significantly different.

As for worldview, it is supposed that the effect of power asymmetry on threat perception varies among people with different worldviews, especially for the U.S. When the U.S. is seen as more powerful than China, the level of threat should be perceived as the highest by offensive realists, followed by defensive realists, and the lowest by liberals. This is because offensive and defensive realists view the international arena through a Hobbesian lens. When they perceive China as the weaker power, they will consider their country as lacking the necessary strength to defend its national interests once faced with the threat of the U.S. Our findings show that this sense of insecurity contributes to heightened threat perceptions. Offensive realists perceive a stronger threat than defensive realists because they have a stronger zero-sum mentality and sense of distrust and insecurity. Liberals view international society as cooperative and are less concerned about their country’s lower power status, and therefore we find hold the weakest threat perceptions. Yet such differences among the three groups are less likely to materialize for Japan, a relatively weaker rival. This is because when offensive and defensive realists view China as more powerful, they are less likely to harbor a heightened sense of insecurity. Thus, their threat perceptions should not be markedly different from those of liberals.


Our study explored how China’s growing power relative to the U.S. and Japan affects its threat perceptions toward these countries among elite youths. Overall, our findings demonstrate that growing power can actually increase senses of security among these youth. This is particularly for Chinese youth’s threat perceptions of Japan, which have decreased as China’s relative power has increased. Groups with more friendly feelings towards Japan, in particular, witnessed a dramatic decrease in their threat perceptions and may become the cornerstone in Chinese public opinion advocating for peaceful relations with their neighbor. While threat perceptions among the ‘hostile feeling’ group may remain strong in future, the ‘friendly feeling’ group may moderate this sentiment within the general public..

We also show divisions in threat perceptions of the U.S. along different worldviews: offensive realists, defensive realists and liberals. Further, the three groups’ position on whether China should challenge the U.S. in the long run may become even more divided if the relative power of the US to China is seen as growing, or when they realize the U.S.-China power gap turns out to be greater than previously estimated. This mechanism can be seen in a recent high-profile case. In 2018, the US government decided to impose sanctions against the Chinese telecommunication equipment supplier, Zhongxing Telecom Equipment (ZTE) by banning sale of American technological components to ZTE by the excuse of ZTE’s violation of U.S. export control laws. This was a hard blow to ZTE, and more importantly, it exposed the huge gap in the core telecommunication technologies between China and the US. It triggered a wide and in-depth debate on Chinese social media where the young generation gathers, between liberals criticizing ZTE for its ‘unlawful’ acts and pleading for learning from the U.S., and realists blaming the U.S. government as intentionally containing China’s rise to preserve American hegemony.

In brief, the findings suggest that as China’s relative power grows, Chinese youth may not be so eager for China to challenge the status quo, as has been widely assumed. Moreover, the findings challenge the common assumption that China’s growing power has fostered a generation of Chinese youth with unanimous support for more assertive Chinese foreign policy. That is to say, the widespread impression of the Chinese youth with homogenously hawkish foreign policy attitudes is clearly over-simplified. Their divergent attitudes towards these two states may affect Chinese foreign policies in the future, and offer a chance for China’s peaceful relations with these states in the future.