China Not Full of Raging Nationalists

Beijing often suggests its hands are tied by widespread patriotic fury. Polls suggest otherwise.

Are China’s leaders really being pushed around by a nationalistic, rowdy public? On March 25 at the Jamestown Foundation’s annual conference on Chinese defense and security issues, Australian analyst Andrew Chubb made a provocative presentation that challenged the official narrative that they are. Chubb presented survey results from five Chinese cities on how ordinary citizens view the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Startlingly, in an era of social media and mobile Internet access, most people still get their news from CCTV—not the fiery commercial news outlets—and agree in principle that the government should seek compromise over China’s maritime territorial disputes.

Chubb, a PhD student at the University of Western Australia, has been analyzing Chinese propaganda and the influence of popular opinion on China’s foreign policy on the blog South Sea Conversations. He has been a frequent challenger of the conventional wisdom on variety of topics, such as the role of PLA commentators and propagandists, with sound data-driven analysis of Chinese sources. Commensurate with his previous work, Chubb’s presentation at the Jamestown Foundation offered the same high quality of analysis based on recent survey research involving roughly 1500 respondents in five cities—Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shanghai—in March 2013.

While all survey data should be considered carefully, the results of Chubb’s survey work raise a number of important points.

· The more Chinese citizens paid attention to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and South China Sea disputes, the more likely they were to approve of, or at least be satisfied with, Beijing’s performance. The more Chinese citizens watched television to get their news about the maritime disputes, the more likely they were to support negotiation and compromise.

· Use of Internet sources for information on the maritime disputes increases the level of dissatisfaction with Chinese government performance; however, most people (about 60 percent) get their news on the maritime territorial disputes from Chinese Central Television (CCTV). Commercial media, like the Global Times, and Internet news portals, like Sina and iFeng, have incentives to be provocative to boost viewership and revenues. The carefully controlled CCTV, however, adheres closely to the party line.

· Among nine policy areas surveyed—corruption, rich-poor disparity, food and drug safety, environment, maritime territorial disputes, social practices and moral issues, legal reform, economic development, and cross-Strait unification—China’s maritime territorial disputes frequently appeared as one of the top five issues of concern. The island disputes, however, ranked significantly behind corruption, rich-poor disparity, and food and drug safety. Moreover, the territorial disputes were on par, if not a little behind, environmental degradation as well as social practices and moral issues.

· The two least popular policy options among those surveyed were China’s long-stated policy of “shelve disputes, pursue joint development” and “send in the troops.” Those surveyed preferred more active options, including the kind of pressure tactics being employed like popular activism. More than 50 percent of those surveyed also supported economic sanctions, UN arbitration, guiding public opinion to give the appearance of dissatisfaction, and negotiation as options that Beijing could pursue.

Chubb’s survey data provides a very different perspective on the narrative that often emerges in meetings in Beijing. Chinese analysts and officials are willing to encourage and cultivate—or at least not contradict—the notion that nationalist sentiments are strong enough to constrain China’s foreign-policy options. One prominent example of the nationalist-constraints narrative appears in Susan Shirk’s Fragile Superpower, where many of her footnotes indicate interviews with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials as the source for this narrative.

While observers must consider the possibility that Chinese officialdom perceives nationalist pressures and acts accordingly, another possibility—that Beijing wants foreigners to believe this narrative—should be considered seriously.

The value of the nationalist constraints narrative is threefold. First, it paints the Chinese government as the reasonable party. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were not in charge of a one-party state, then another autocratic government or a nationalist democracy might be even more assertive to assuage popular opinion. Put another way, the CCP may be worst form of Chinese government except for all the others.