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.
Second, cultivating fear of what might replace the CCP encourages foreigners to drop any notions of peaceful evolution and be invested, at least intellectually, in the survival of the CCP. As William Shakespeare observed, fear of the unknown “makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.” Current Chinese leaders at least regularly state Beijing “pursues an independent policy of peace,” suggesting China’s ambitions can be accommodated.
Third, the narrative puts Chinese officials in a good place to encourage softer policies from foreign governments and elicit information in a “help us help you” manner. The nationalist constraint narrative is plausible, because of its roots in Western thinking as much as any “fact” on the ground or interview with Chinese officials. CCP cadre and Chinese officials previously told foreign interlocutors that hardline elements in the party were rising in influence and that foreigners needed to help them stave off the hardliners with information or softer policies.
Unlike the previous efforts to frame threats to good foreign relations in terms internal political dynamics, China’s nationalistic voices are visible to foreign analysts and fit nicely into concerns about China’s future trajectory. The Chinese press in both English and Chinese is filled with voices that encourage Chinese leaders to be more like Putin and blockade Philippine outposts in the South China Sea.
Chubb’s data cannot be considered definitive; however, it empirically challenges the conventional wisdom about nationalism and public opinion restraining Chinese foreign policymakers. It suggests foreign analysts may be over-reading Chinese nationalism, finding what they expect to see rather than what exists—a point also made by Cornell’s Allen Carlson and Jason Oaks when they evaluated the Global Times’ editorial section.
Moreover, the survey data suggests Chinese public opinion and the influence of state-controlled media are not always pernicious—something for which Beijing deserves a bit of credit. If public opinion shapes the limits of policy, then why is Beijing so resistant to UN arbitration? More than 60 percent of the respondents thought it was an acceptable policy option; yet, Beijing continues to ridicule the prospect. For example, a recent People’s Daily commentary with an official Xinhua English translation stated the Philippine effort to seek arbitration runs “against the international law and the historical truth as well as against morality and basic rules of international relations.”
Beijing may not have collected similar data, and Chinese officials may have followed gamely along with foreign analysts—it is to Beijing’s advantage for foreigners to perceive nationalist threats—or may even feel genuine pressure from what they read. But a benign and innocent reading of how China and the CCP manage outsiders should not be assumed, given that Beijing has a well-developed approach to handling foreigners. At minimum, the data Chubb presented at the Jamestown Conference suggests foreign analysts should be more cautious in their appreciation of Chinese public opinion and what it means for China’s foreign-policy behavior.
Peter Mattis is a Fellow in The Jamestown Foundation’s China Program and a PhD Student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shujenchang. CC BY-SA.