Two recent surveys highlight positive attitudes that seem to be at odds with the often-strained China-US relationship. A majority of those interviewed said that the relationship is crucial to both countries. They also want greater cooperation, especially in economic and energy issues.
The surveys were commissioned at the end of 2011 by China Daily with Gallup in Washington and Horizon Research Group in Beijing. China Daily released the results on Thursday, days before Vice-President Xi Jinping's trip to the US. His visit, which begins on Monday, is widely expected to improve ties in what will be a turbulent US election year.
The data generated by the surveys, including opinions on US-China relations and perceived barriers to building stronger ties, was drawn from a wide range of people, including members of the general public and opinion leaders in the two countries.
The China Daily-Gallup survey covered 2,007 members of the general public and 250 opinion leaders in the US. Seven in 10 US respondents said strong relations between the US and China are "somewhat" or "very" important.
Opinion leaders were even more emphatic, as 85 percent said strong relations between the two countries are important.
It also showed that Americans tend to want more bilateral cooperation, especially with economic and energy issues, in addition to cultural, educational, scientific, political and diplomatic cooperation.
Similar results were found in the China Daily-Horizon survey, which polled residents from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shenyang and Xi'an, most of which host US embassy or consulates.
More than 90 percent of the Chinese public, regardless of their location, has believed for many years in a row that the Sino-US relationship is important, according to the survey.
In 2011, about half believed the relationship was "very" important, a 20 percent increase from a similar survey by Horizon in 2009.
Nearly 60 percent of Chinese respondents think the bilateral relationship will remain stable in general, and nearly one-fourth believe it will improve.
Yet Chinese citizens' favorability for the US declined in the past two years from the highest level reached between 2006 and 2009, according to Horizon's data in the last decade.
The survey shows "the hegemony by the US on other countries" has become a major factor that affects Chinese citizens' impression toward the US.
About 42 percent of Chinese respondents said the US war on terror, even after Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, made their impression of the US worse. That is an increase of nearly 8 percent from the result in 2007 in the midst of the war.
Around 63 percent of respondents said their impression of the US has worsened because of the US intervention in Libya and stance on Syria.
Researchers said changing impressions of the other country reflect the changes in the bilateral relationship. According to the China Daily-Horizon survey, more than half of the respondents said the current China-US relationship is "bad" or "very bad".
In addition to US hegemony, its negative political and economic policies on China are also some of the top factors affecting Chinese citizens' impressions of the US, it showed.
In the China Daily-Gallup survey, Americans are almost evenly split on their overall view of China. Forty-two percent said they have a favorable opinion of China, 44 percent had an unfavorable view and 12 percent said they had neither a favorable nor an unfavorable opinion.
Certain groups were slightly more likely to have favorable views of China, such as African-Americans and Americans between the ages of 18 to 34, the survey found.
It is not surprising that there are different views among the US populace on ties with China. From the beginning, the American perception of China has been divided between "acceptance and rejection, admiration and contempt", said Terry Lautz, a visiting professor at Syracuse University and former vice-president of the Henry Luce Foundation.
Historically, Americans have looked at China's rich history and culture with great fascination, but they also treated a weak and disorganized China with much disdain, he said. "American views of China, whether positive or negative, generally have been constructed on an assumption that American values and powers are superior," Lautz said at a recent seminar in Washington DC.
"The notion that China ought to be just like the US was especially nourished by several generations of American missionaries who had vested interests in creating ties that would bind the two cultures together," he said.
The China Daily-Gallup survey showed only 13 percent of American respondents said China is an ally of the US. Almost two-thirds said they view China as friendly but not an ally, while 23 percent said China was unfriendly or an enemy, it said.
"I am glad to see that most Americans are in favor of friendly ties with China, considering that both nations have neither a formal alliance nor alliances. But both nations are friendly and have common interests. It is these common interests that are more important," said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and a leading Western scholar on China's legal system.
"China is certainly not an enemy of the United States, and the US is not an enemy of China. But there are some people in both nations who think that the two countries are enemies or will become enemies. They are a minority. It is for the rest of us to prove that they are wrong," says Cohen.
Cohen feels that China's economic progress is a good thing. "We benefited from China's economic development. But we are a country that is increasingly divided. I think that's a dangerous situation. We have to educate our people more," he says.
Despite the desire for stronger relations, Americans see barriers to achieving that goal, such as a lack mutual trust, an imbalanced trade demand for oil supplies and different political institutions.
Nearly half of the general population and opinion leaders in the US agreed that China's currency was a factor for the US economic situation. Findings in the China Daily-Horizon survey showed more Chinese citizens think the two countries should share a common responsibility to solve their problems, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2010.
Analysts said despite the differences between the two countries, which are likely to last for a long time, the polling data showed people on both sides recognize the importance of trying to get along with each other.
Chas Freeman, a US diplomat and interpreter for US president Richard Nixon during his ice-breaking visit to China in 1972, said the bilateral relationship, "strong and interdependent as it is, is tinged with a measure of suspicion, misapprehension, and mistrust".
There is broad recognition in both China and the US of economic interdependence, and most people in both countries also recognize that there are now few global problems that can be solved without cooperation, Freeman told China Daily.
But the "very complexity" of the relationship means that "a myriad of special interests are affected by it, and there are constantly many minor frictions", he said.
"This is entirely normal but, at any given moment, there is always something going on to agitate people and cause concern on one or both sides," he said.
"No one issue exists in a vacuum," said Clayton Dube, executive director of the US-China Institute of University of Southern California.
He told China Daily that protectionism and other economic disputes play out against a backdrop of images - confrontations in the South China Sea, commitments to nuclear non-proliferation, the treatment of individuals and ethnic groups and more.
"All these influence particular positions at particular times," said Dube, adding that the bilateral relationship in many aspects "is better then ever".
Dube said the key reason for disagreements is that the two countries are much more fully intertwined with each other and with other countries.
"Our perceived interests are not always aligned. Sometimes this is a matter of suspicion and insufficient communication. More often it's rooted in serious differences over policies and practices," Dube said.
Dube said it is ultimately in both countries' interests to expand and deepen cooperation wherever possible, but fundamental differences do exist and aren't likely to disappear anytime soon.
Freeman said despite all the difficulties, the two sides have "so far managed the necessary adjustments quite well".
"I am optimistic that this will continue to be the case. All the more so because, as the polling data shows, people on both sides recognize the importance of trying to get along with each other," Freeman said.