From the Senkaku Islands to the South China Sea and the Sino-Indian border, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has wielded Chinese public opinion as a diplomatic weapon in multiple recent regional crises. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has extensive capabilities for controlling public opinion, Beijing often emphasizes that its options for diplomatic compromise are limited by the specter of Chinese popular nationalism. Many foreign governments now routinely monitor Chinese online sentiments about their country, suggesting that Chinese public opinion is seen as in some way informative. But how is it interpreted, and what impact does it have in times of crisis? Do outbursts of nationalist anger help China convey military resolve, telegraph threats of economic punishment, or induce other nations to tread more carefully? Or do they backfire, provoking the target and steeling resolve to resist China’s demands or even confront China militarily? This report offers unique preliminary insight into these questions from a survey experiment conducted in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, and India in 2022, comparing respondents’ views of a crisis before and after Chinese public opinion becomes a salient factor in the scenario.
- Across the region, most respondents updated their assessments of Beijing’s resolve in a crisis scenario after Beijing brought Chinese public opinion into the situation, and more than a third altered their view of how their country should handle the crisis.
- However, the effects of Chinese public opinion on Indo-Pacific views of Beijing’s intentions varied in surprising ways. Many respondents actually downgraded their estimations of the PRC’s willingness to use military force after Beijing chose to publicize the crisis.
- Nationalist public opinion in China tended to amplify Beijing's threat of economic punishment, but was ultimately more likely to provoke the other side's citizens than to deter.
- Interpretations varied widely from country to country and across military, economic and political dimensions of resolve. Different modes of expression of PRC citizens’ sentiments — such as online nationalist mobilizations and real-world street protests — produced different effects.
- Among the 11 Indo-Pacific countries, Singaporean respondents attached the most credibility to Chinese popular nationalism as an indicator of Beijing’s resolve. Vietnamese observers differentiated between Chinese online nationalism, which tended to be seen as a bluff, and street protests, which were taken as a more credible signal of resolve. Australian respondents were the most skeptical of the Chinese public’s significance.
- Although further research is needed, these initial results suggest Beijing ultimately has little ability to control how foreign observers interpret the significance of its own domestic public opinion in crisis situations.
- If the United States, China, and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region wish to avoid unintended escalation, they should engage in dialogue on the role of PRC public opinion and its apparently counterproductive role in China’s foreign policy, address public opinion in crisis control mechanisms, and pay attention to the growing trend of interactions between publics.
Future crises in the Indo-Pacific region are likely to play out in front of domestic audiences, including those in China, but the implications for stability and crisis control are unclear. International relations scholars going back to Thomas Schelling have argued that many international crises are contests of will more than capability, and that domestic constraints can help a state prevail at the international bargaining table, especially when nuclear powers are involved. But in the Indo-Pacific, the lack of appropriate “guardrails,” such as agreed-upon codes of conduct and high-level military-to-military crisis communications links could make crisis situations particularly risky if leaders attempt to seize the initiative and steel domestic resolve using publicity.
From the South China Sea to the Sino-Indian border, and from the Taiwan Strait to missile defenses in Korea, Beijing has in recent years invoked the specter of Chinese popular nationalism to put pressure on its adversaries during crises and diplomatic standoffs. PRC Foreign Ministry cadres have routinely alluded to domestic public opinion as a constraint on their ability to make concessions, and PRC propaganda frequently refers to the expectations of the Chinese people as a justification, if not a driver, of hard-line policy positions. But do foreign observers believe these narratives, and if so, how do they respond?
Few foreign leaders and officials would be unaware of the CCP’s capabilities for manipulating and controlling the attitudes and public expressions of Chinese citizens. So extensive is the state’s control that for some observers, Chinese public opinion simply does not exist.1 Nonetheless, governments in the region routinely monitor Chinese online sentiments about their country, with many diplomatic services following discussions on Weibo and other social media platforms. The attention paid to the PRC internet by foreign governments implies that Chinese public discourse is seen as potentially informative — if not as an independent popular force constraining or driving the Party-state’s policies, or a sign of internal debates, then as an instrument of Party-state policy and thus a potential indicator of Beijing’s intentions.
Foreign companies, too, often look to the Chinese internet for signs of trouble in an era of increasingly frequent consumer boycotts. Media commentary, policy analysis and academic research, meanwhile, often cites rising Chinese popular nationalism to explain the direction of the PRC’s foreign policy and the behavior of its officials and agencies. In short, even though the Party-state possesses the world’s most sophisticated information controls, and despite debates over the applicability of the term “public opinion,” foreign observers across government, business, and the media pay significant attention to Chinese citizens’ collective sentiments and public expressions. Any potential effects, however, will depend on those observers’ interpretations of what they see.
There is a wide range of available interpretations of Chinese public discourse and popular sentiments, particularly during crises and other times of heightened international tensions. A wave of state-led nationalist outrage could be seen as a credible signal of the Party-state’s seriousness about the issue at hand. However, it could alternatively be read as a bluff, an attempt to divert domestic attention from internal problems, or a sign of sub-state factional power struggles or internal policy disagreements. The ambiguity of China’s state-led popular nationalism — often described as a “double-edged sword” — increases the importance of interpretation by observers outside China in determining its effects.
This paper examines the Chinese public’s possible effects on future crises through the lens of a unique 2022 survey experiment among citizens in 11 Indo-Pacific countries: Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, and India. The experiment measured Indo-Pacific citizens’ estimations of China’s resolve and their views of different policy options, first in a crisis handled in secret, and then again after the Chinese side “went public,” bringing Chinese domestic public opinion into the equation. The before-and-after comparison provides preliminary insights into a series of important questions: Do outbursts of nationalist anger help convey China’s military resolve to foreign publics? Can the Chinese public help the CCP telegraph credible threats of economic punishment? What is the effect on foreign citizens’ policy preferences? Does Chinese nationalist outrage deter or provoke?
Across the region, a majority of Indo-Pacific respondents updated their assessments of Beijing’s resolve in the crisis scenario after Beijing brought Chinese public opinion into the situation, and more than a third altered their view of how the crisis should be handled by their own country’s government. Counterproductively for China, more respondents moved in a hawkish direction favoring confrontation than in a dovish direction favoring avoidance of conflict, indicating that the main effect of elevated Chinese publicity and popular nationalist outbursts is likely provocation rather than deterrence.
However, the survey found wide variation in individual countries’ and citizens’ responses. Singaporean respondents, for example, attached the most credibility to Chinese state-led nationalism as an indicator of Beijing’s resolve, while many Vietnamese and Australian citizens viewed popular nationalism as a safety valve for domestic discontent that reduced their estimations of the likelihood of Beijing resorting to military force. But observers in the latter two countries drew divergent policy implications: Australians became more likely to support a strong military-led response to the crisis, while Vietnamese support for military confrontation decreased. Limited evidence suggesting deterrent effects was observed in the Philippines, Japan, India, and New Zealand, but overall, involvement of the Chinese public in crisis situations was more likely to provoke foreign citizens than to deter.
The results are a preliminary attempt at tackling a little-understood factor in crisis diplomacy — the effect on external audiences when governments make use of domestic public opinion during crises. The findings presented here cannot fully answer that question, but they point to four main propositions for countries dealing with China, for policymakers within the Chinese system, and for analysts of China’s foreign relations.
First, foreign officials should make stronger efforts to convey to the PRC the counterproductive effects that state-led Chinese nationalist mobilizations can have, particularly in provoking domestic public opinion in the target country. Second, crisis control mechanisms designed to avoid incidents and inadvertent escalation should address the publicity and public presentation of information during crises. Third, governments, particularly those in liberal democracies, and economic actors must anticipate the reactions of their own publics to Chinese nationalist pressure tactics in light of increasing interactivity between mass publics in the Internet era. Fourth, researchers and analysts of China should seize opportunities to open up deeper conversations with PRC interlocutors on the role of public opinion in the foreign relations of Xi Jinping’s China.
Chinese public opinion is an enigmatic concept. Some foreign policy experts and practitioners deny its existence outright, seeing only fabricated, state-directed nationalism, while others regard responsiveness to citizen preferences, including on foreign policy, as a key feature of the CCP’s resilient authoritarianism. Yet outbursts of popular nationalist sentiments in China prompt even the most skeptical observers to ask, what would Beijing be trying to achieve by facilitating or encouraging such sentiments? Is China mobilizing its population for conflict? Or could fanning nationalism be a diversionary ploy to distract from domestic issues? Might it be a function of domestic substate competition? CCP propaganda theory and practices across a series of incidents and crises suggest the PRC has attempted to use domestic Chinese public sentiments as part of its diplomatic messaging and propaganda in recent years.
The CCP’s management of public opinion centers on “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导), or actively influencing grassroots popular sentiments in directions that are useful to the Party’s goals. Introduced by Hu Jintao in 2008, the concept references China’s extensive traditions of flood control and irrigation. Extending the analogy, China’s control apparatus can be imagined as a dam composed of hundreds of sluice gates that policymakers can open to varying degrees, allowing the force of public sentiments to flow toward particular issue areas. Official statements, attention-grabbing opinion leaders such as the Global Times and military commentators, and subtle attenuations in censorship instructions are particularly useful levers that propaganda officials can use to open the flow of popular sentiments toward foreign policy controversies at particular times.
The state has channeled surges of nationalist sentiments toward China’s foreign maritime and territorial disputes on several occasions in recent years. In May 2012, one month into a tense standoff with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, suggestive official rhetoric and threatening state media editorials triggered a wave of online warmongering that echoed and amplified threats of escalation by Chinese diplomatic and propaganda organs. Soon afterward, Manila returned to the negotiating table, and Beijing soon emerged with control of the shoal. Later that year, after Japan nationalized three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, state propaganda and looser censorship facilitated a wave of anti-Japanese outrage that culminated in mass protests in dozens of Chinese cities. Meanwhile, PRC Coast Guard vessels began patrolling the territorial seas around the islands under the cover of what one PRC scholar described at the time as “grassroots deterrence.”
Maritime disputes are by no means the only area of foreign policy to have featured state-led nationalist outbursts in recent years. In 2016, the United States and South Korea agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system against North Korea. After deciding that the deployment posed a threat to its own nuclear deterrent, Beijing used official propaganda and social media influencers to mobilize a wave of anti-Korean sentiments, touching off a protracted campaign of economic boycotts targeting Korean tourism and consumer products. The short-term effect was almost certainly counterproductive, triggering conservative outrage in Korea that consolidated Seoul’s commitment to the THAAD deployment. In the longer term, however, the campaign may have helped discourage further moves along similar lines.
The Sino-Indian border has seen two serious crises in recent years, one of which involved a major publicity campaign by the PRC. In 2017, the Indian Army crossed into territory contested by Bhutan and China to block a Chinese military road-building project near the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. In the ensuing 72-day faceoff, the PRC issued more than 20 official statements, indicating a deliberate effort to channel public attention to the issue in China. Propaganda organs explicitly linked public opinion to Beijing’s threats of military conflict, warning that “the public’s patience is running short” and “the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] will not let the Chinese people down.” But in the summer of 2020, by contrast, after dozens of soldiers died in clashes along the disputed Line of Actual Control, Beijing recognized the strength of Indian nationalist sentiments and sought to minimize public knowledge of the crisis.
On the Taiwan issue, the idea of Chinese popular nationalist sentiments compelling the Party to respond militarily to a declaration of independence has been a key piece of the PRC’s messaging for many years. The intense passion of many PRC citizens for the claim over Taiwan has been noted anecdotally for many years. During the Taiwan Strait crises of 1995–1996, the performance of what Todd Hall described as the “diplomacy of anger” served to boost Beijing’s deterrence signals. More recently, since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, pro-PRC activists have engaged in “expeditions” to flood the social media pages of targets, including Tsai and celebrities who committed patriotic faux pas. As Christopher Twomey argues, “The Chinese Communist Party’s reliance on nationalism in general, and specifically as related to Taiwan, will create pressure on the regime to live up to its self-proclaimed status as defender of China’s unity.”
Debates will persist over the extent to which waves of Chinese nationalism are attributable to central strategic intent, domestic substate politics, or the sheer strength of bottom-up nationalist sentiments. These arguments are unlikely to be decisively resolved while the CCP’s deliberations and decision-making remain opaque. Each argument may be valid in different cases, and multiple motivations may often be in play. But the effects of Chinese public opinion on any particular case also depend fundamentally on observers’ beliefs about its significance. Interpreting Chinese nationalist outbursts as a sign that Xi Jinping has decided to mobilize the population for conflict point to radically different policy responses than those that would follow from reading nationalist rancor as a sign of internal contestation between hawks and doves. Compared with the CCP’s black-box decision-making, these perceptions are much more accessible to study.
Identifying Chinese Nationalism’s Effects
To shed new light on Chinese public opinion’s effects on crisis situations, a scenario-based experiment was embedded in online surveys in 11 Indo-Pacific countries in the summer of 2022.2 Respondents in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, and India were asked for their estimations of China’s resolve and their preferences for their own country’s response to the situation. Each respondent’s views were recorded twice: first in a scenario in which the crisis was handled in secret, with no knowledge of the public in either country, and then again after the Chinese government started channeling Chinese public attention toward the crisis.
Before: A Secret Crisis
Crises in remote border geographies, especially at sea, tend to begin out of the public eye, providing the governments or militaries involved with an opportunity for private negotiations. Therefore, the experiment initially described the crisis as being handled behind closed doors, with China making private threats to use military force and economic punishment if the target country did agree to China’s demands. The India and Kazakhstan scenarios began with an accidental clash between patrol units along their disputed land borders with China, while the other nine countries’ scenarios centered on an accidental collision between ships in disputed East Asian waters. The wording was as follows:
Respondents were then asked how likely it was, on a 0–100 probability scale from impossible (0) to certain (100), that China would:
Respondents then indicated their approval or disapproval of three policy options for handling such a crisis, measured on a 7-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7):
This provided the baseline measurements of China’s perceived resolve across three dimensions — military, economic, and political — and preferences for how the crisis should be handled.
After: China Goes Public
Next, Chinese public opinion was introduced into the scenario by informing respondents that the Chinese government had revealed the ongoing standoff to the public. To compare different forms of Chinese public opinion and popular nationalist mobilization, respondents were given one of three further pieces of news: (1) a threatening official statement; (2) a wave of online warmongering; or (3) mass anti-foreign street protests in China. The wording of the updates was as follows:
After receiving the new information, respondents were asked to update their answers to the earlier questions about the likelihood that China would use force, impose economic punishment, or eventually back down from its demands.
Finally, respondents were asked again for their degree of agreement with escalatory, conflict-avoidant, and intransigent policy responses:
Most respondents gave different assessments of the PRC’s resolve after Chinese public opinion became a factor in the situation, and more than 35% adjusted their answers regarding the three policy options. As discussed in the following sections, however, the direction of change tended to run contrary to what the PRC — and its nationalist supporters — would hope to see.
Behind Closed Doors
When the crisis was being handled behind closed doors, Vietnamese, Australian, and New Zealand respondents were the most inclined to believe China would use force. On average, respondents in these countries put the chances of China using force in the maritime crisis scenario at around 70%, well above Malaysian respondents at 60%; India and Kazakhstan rated China’s likelihood of using force in their land-based scenarios at 57 to 58%. Most other countries in the survey saw the chances of China using force at around 65%.
The higher results in Vietnam are understandable in light of China’s historical use of force against that country in comparable real-worlds scenarios in 1974 and 1988. The Australian and New Zealand respondents’ relatively high estimation of China’s military resolve may reflect a recognition of China’s relatively higher stakes in the South China Sea, where the hypothetical crisis was set. While Australia and New Zealand are non-claimants, the PRC has advanced high-profile territorial sovereignty claims over hundreds of islands and atolls there, along with expansive claims to maritime resources.
Together with South Koreans, respondents in Australia and New Zealand gave the highest initial estimations of the likelihood of China using economic sanctions — around 70% on average. This result is understandable in light of Australia’s and South Korea’s recent experiences of economic coercion by the PRC and New Zealanders’ awareness of China’s punishment of its antipodean neighbor. In contrast, Indian respondents on average estimated a 55% likelihood that China would inflict large-scale economic punishment in their border crisis scenario. This result is consistent with a perception in Indian society that the country’s dependence on China is low since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government imposed heavily publicized restrictions on Chinese economic exchanges, including bans on dozens of smartphone apps, following China’s deadly incursion in the Galwan Valley in 2020.
Indian respondents were also the most upbeat about the prospects of China backing down in their land-based crisis scenario, on average rating this as the most likely of the three possibilities at 59%. Southeast Asian countries were the next most likely to believe that China would ultimately back down, with respondents in Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam rating the chances of an eventual Chinese backdown at around 50%. Northeast Asian respondents — Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — estimated the probability of China backing down at only 42 to 44% on average.
The results discussed above reflect respondents’ initial baseline perceptions of China’s resolve with the crisis being handled behind closed doors. Did the introduction of Chinese nationalist public opinion alter Indo-Pacific citizens’ perceptions of the risk of military conflict and economic punishment? If so, did their policy preferences become more amenable to China’s aims, or less? Or does Chinese popular nationalism have no effect on foreign assessments of crisis situations?
Effects on China’s Perceived Resolve
Overall, across the 11 countries included in the survey, the introduction of Chinese public opinion prompted most respondents to update their assessments of China’s resolve in the crisis scenario. This included 43% of respondents who increased their estimation of China’s resolve after the Chinese government made the crisis public, and 39% who decreased their estimation. The split indicates widely divergent interpretations of Chinese public opinion’s significance. As discussed below, such variation was evident across at least three key dimensions: the kind of Chinese resolve in question (military, economic or political), the target country, and the mode of public opinion’s involvement.
First, public opinion generated different effects on different aspects of China’s perceived resolve — military, economic, and political. As the red bars in Figure 1 show, Chinese public opinion generally did not enhance the credibility of the PRC’s military threats, in fact, more respondents downgraded than upgraded their estimations of Beijing’s willingness to use force to resolve the crisis. This may reflect an interpretation of the PRC as a risk-averse “cautious bully” that would prefer to use force away from the eye of public attention to better control domestic reactions. However, if resolve means Beijing’s willingness to impose economic punishment or simply not back down, then the Chinese public’s involvement generally did boost the credibility of Beijing’s threats in the crisis scenario.
Second, the effects on foreign citizens’ perceptions of China’s resolve varied depending on the target country. The introduction of Chinese public opinion into the scenario tended to sharpen Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian, and Kazakhstani observers’ perceptions of the PRC’s military and economic resolve. By contrast, Australian, Vietnamese, and South Korean citizens, on average, downgraded their estimations of China’s willingness to escalate, especially in the military domain. Across the 11 countries, however, the Chinese public’s involvement conveyed a credible signal that Beijing would not back down and thus would be willing to engage in a protracted political standoff, even if it would not be willing to escalate.
Third, different modes of involvement of the Chinese public had different effects, as illustrated in Figure 2. The first type, a Foreign Ministry statement revealing the crisis and publicly threatening escalation — was widely interpreted as a bluff. The descending red bars in the bottom panel of Figure 2 indicate that citizens in many countries tended to read such statements as an indication that the Party-state would be less likely to use force in the crisis. However, the yellow bars indicate that respondents in Singapore, Vietnam, and Taiwan did tend to view public threat statements as a credible signal of intent to impose economic punishment, while the black bars show that most countries’ respondents decreased their estimation of the likelihood of China backing down.
Another mode of Chinese public opinion that was tested in the survey was outbursts of Chinese online nationalist warmongering that echoed the state’s economic and military threat language. Online nationalism was more likely than official statements to convey military resolve, as the red bars in the middle panel of Figure 2 indicate. Vietnam stands out as an exception: Respondents there significantly downgraded their estimations of Chinese military resolve, on average, after being told of demands for escalation on the Chinese internet. This result may reflect Vietnamese respondents’ relatively deep and personal understanding and experience of Leninist party-states’ capabilities in manipulating online sentiments, coupled with a sense that the Chinese internet is much more controlled than their own online environment.
Street protests were the third form of expression of Chinese public opinion tested in the survey. In a book-length study on anti-foreign nationalist street protests in China, Jessica Chen Weiss argued that the risk of such protests spiraling out of control makes them a unique means by which Beijing can convey credible signals of resolve. Consistent with Weiss’s argument, the top panel of Figure 2 shows that street protests were generally viewed as a credible signal that China would not back down. Surprisingly, however, the mass demonstrations were the weakest of the three forms of public opinion in conveying willingness to escalate. Australians, New Zealanders, and South Koreans’ responses suggested they saw protests as a domestic “safety valve” that reduced the likelihood of China using military force in the crisis by releasing pent-up domestic pressures. Only Singaporeans were likely to interpret protests as credible signals of the PRC’s willingness to escalate militarily or economically.4
Taken together, these results suggest that Chinese public opinion can indeed change foreign citizens’ perceptions of risk in a crisis situation — but not in a consistent and predictable way. While popular nationalism, particularly in the form of street protests, may help convince an adversary that China will not back down, it does not appear to add credibility to the idea that Beijing would be willing to fight over the issue militarily. Compared to street protests, government threat statements and online nationalist outrage were somewhat more likely to boost the credibility of Beijing’s threats of economic punishment. But interpretations of Chinese public opinion also varied widely across the Indo-Pacific, with Singapore the only country where respondents consistently upgraded their estimations of China’s resolve in the crisis.
Deterrence and Provocation
What effects did the introduction of Chinese public opinion into the crisis scenario have on citizens’ policy preferences? Figure 3 illustrates the average changes in respondents’ approval or disapproval of three policy options — sending in military reinforcements, avoiding confrontation to seek compromise, and standing firm despite the economic costs — in each country. The red upper half of the chart indicates increases in approval of hard-line approaches in response to China: that is, the provocation effects of China’s state-led nationalist public opinion. The green lower half of the chart indicates increased approval of conflict-avoiding options, which can be understood as deterrence effects of Chinese public opinion.
Overall, across the 11 Indo-Pacific countries surveyed, Chinese public opinion was more likely to provoke foreign citizens than to deter them. As noted in Table 2, 60 to 65% of respondents were unmoved by China’s public opinion’s involvement in the crisis, giving the same answers on the three policy options before and after public opinion was introduced. Among the remaining 35%, nearly 20% became more inclined to favor an escalatory military response, compared to 17% who became less approving of such an approach.
All three forms of public opinion — public threat statements, online mobilization and street protests — were more likely to provoke than to deter overall. But the Foreign Ministry’s public threats and Chinese nationalist outbursts online were more provocative than street protests, as illustrated by the yellow and orange bars in Figure 4, which show increased approval of the most escalatory policy response — sending military reinforcements. As noted above, government statements and online nationalism were more likely than street protests to persuade respondents to upgrade their estimations of China’s resolve to impose economic punishment. This pattern suggests boosting one’s resolve in foreign eyes might be a disadvantage in some crises, provoking rather than deterring the target audience, and placing adversary decision makers under greater domestic pressure to escalate. Further research is needed to further explore this possibility, and the conditions under which it might apply.
Counterproductive effects on the target’s foreign policy preferences are apparent in the country-level results. Respondents in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Kazakhstan all became significantly more likely to favor sending military reinforcements to the scene of the standoff after China brought domestic public opinion into the equation. As the top panel of Figure 4 indicates, official Foreign Ministry threat statements (yellow bars) and online warmongering (orange) were seen as particularly provocative.
On the other hand, there was some limited evidence of deterrent effects that would accord with China’s interests — or at least the intentions of its propaganda authorities in such situations. As the middle panel of Figure 4 indicates, respondents in Japan and the Philippines, and, to a lesser degree, Vietnam and New Zealand, increased approval for a policy of avoiding escalation and seeking a compromise following the mobilization of Chinese public opinion. However, the result was inconsistent across different forms of public opinion, and across countries, with Australians, Kazakhstanis, and, to some extent, South Koreans and Indians increasing their disapproval of avoiding escalation following Beijing’s introduction of Chinese public opinion.
These findings of limited, inconsistent “grassroots deterrence” are arguably consistent with real-world outcomes in the Scarborough Shoal crisis. In May 2012, the Philippines ceased actively contesting on-water control of the disputed atoll amid a wave of state-led nationalist warmongering in China. The PRC has controlled the strategically located shoal ever since. Yet, in the longer term, Manila — and the Philippine public — was undeterred from taking the fight to the PRC in a landmark arbitration case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Philippines’ eventual victory in the case prompted yet another wave of nationalist outrage in China as Beijing sought to delegitimize the process through a massive propaganda campaign in 2015-2016.
The empirical record in the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the nationalization of three disputed East China Sea islands looks similarly mixed. Japan opted not to confront the unarmed government patrol boats that entered the territorial seas around the islands in September 2012, and it has tolerated a regularized Chinese presence ever since that amounts to overlapping control — an important change in the status quo. The massive anti-Japanese protest movement that took place in China in September 2012 may have helped convince Japanese decision makers that physically opposing the new Chinese presence would be too risky. However, large-scale anti-Japanese protests the previous month had failed to convince Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko not to proceed with the nationalization plan — and the anti-Japanese violence has had a lasting negative impact on Japanese sentiments toward China.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The ambiguity and uncertainties surrounding the role of domestic public opinion in China’s crisis diplomacy underscore the potential for dangerous miscalculations and inadvertent conflict in this century’s most strategically contested and economically vibrant region. Although much more research is needed to explore and verify these initial findings, the experiment outlined here suggests potential means to help avert some of these dangers. In particular, the results of this study point to four main policy propositions.
1. Engage PRC counterparts in dialogue on the role of Chinese public opinion.
The results of this study suggest that if Chinese nationalism becomes salient during a crisis, foreign publics’ views of the situation, and their preferences for handling it, may change. This could alter the incentives for dispute resolution on all sides. Policy communities dealing with the PRC should therefore actively seek to engage their Chinese counterparts in dialogue about the role of public opinion and nationalism in foreign policy. In particular, foreign diplomats should attempt to impress upon Beijing’s policymakers how rallying Chinese public opinion tends to anger their populations and ultimately undermines China’s own deterrence. Besides the evidence presented here, numerous recent real-world cases demonstrate counterproductive Chinese public opinion campaigns. One key example is the 2017 upswell in anti-Korean sentiments over THAAD, which triggered a countervailing surge of anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korea that hardened Seoul’s resolve over the issue, and triggered a dramatic worsening of China’s image in the country.
2. Address public opinion in crisis control mechanisms.
Publicity must be a core element of international crisis control mechanisms to mitigate the ambiguities and uncertainties identified in the results presented here. Existing crisis management and confidence-building agreements such as the U.S.-Soviet Union Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA), the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), and multiple Sino-Indian agreements, rightly focus on operational matters that could directly determine whether a clash occurs. But it is crucial that crisis management protocols are developed and updated to reflect the evolving sources of potential misunderstanding and miscalculation, which include domestic politics.
Although democracies are characterized by relatively transparent information flows and a free press, many contemporary flashpoints concern remote and unpopulated geographies that give all governments significant leeway in the foreign policy information marketplace. The United States, China, and other players in the region should seek to define and agree upon principles governing the release and presentation of information during active crisis situations.
3. Pay attention to public-to-public influence.
The era of globally networked communications and media has enabled new modes of direct interaction and contestation between publics and activated nationalist groups that should be a topic of further research at the policy level. A growing trend of public-public interaction has been particularly salient in the dueling Western and Chinese boycott movements, such as those targeting NBA players and officials over their support for Hong Kong’s protest movement and clothing companies over the use, or non-use, of cotton sourced from Xinjiang amid mass internment and forced labor concerns. The results of this study add further evidence that popular nationalist movements can significantly affect public opinion in the target country, thus altering the incentives facing foreign policy decision makers and politicians in the target country. Foreign governments and economic actors need to factor this growing trend of interactivity among public opinions into their risk management processes.
4. Further research on the role of public opinion in China’s foreign relations.
Chinese officials, media organs, and semiofficial academic and professional representatives frequently claim that the PRC is constrained or driven by public opinion, even since Xi Jinping’s consolidation of political power. Often these claims appear performative, leading foreign observers to dismiss them out of hand without further interrogation. This study’s widely varying results suggest there remains a need to clarify and understand the relationship between Chinese public opinion and foreign policy, particularly in Xi Jinping’s “New Era” of tightened political control and demands for “unified thinking” on many issues (统一思想).
Rather than either accepting or dismissing such claims from PRC interlocutors, foreign researchers and analysts should be prepared to follow up with further questions to probe the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy under Chairman Xi.
- Why exactly would PRC diplomats be worried about nationalism in Xi’s China? Have they been attacked or stymied by rival “Wolf Warriors” who align themselves with the supposed vox populi? If so, who, or which Party-state departments have used public opinion in this way?
- Are Chinese officials afraid of a potential nationwide insurrection against the state coalescing around foreign policy issues? If so, what would be some examples of circumstances in which that would be plausible, given the Party-state’s information and social controls?
- Is Xi Jinping being constrained by public opinion from making foreign policy concessions that he would otherwise want to make? If so, what might be some examples, and what evidence is available that Xi would prefer a different path?
- Where the Party-state is constrained from making beneficial compromises, why can’t authorities work on shifting public opinion? Does the problem lie with the Propaganda Department? If so, which units are unwilling to obey central instructions on the presentation of diplomatic matters? Why does Xi not discipline or punish them?
- Would a diversionary conflict ever work to China’s advantage during a domestic crisis? Would a domestic crisis create a greater need for international cooperation, as it did in 1989?
- How do Chinese interlocutors think about the state’s capabilities for shaping public opinion on foreign policy and other issues in the internet era – the strengths and limitations thereof?
- What sorts of messages — if any — are China’s leaders trying to send to the outside world when they lead popular nationalist indignation against foreign countries? Are they aware of cases in which this has been counterproductive to China’s interests?
- How have these signals been misinterpreted or missed altogether in the past, and with what consequences?
These and many other questions related to public opinion in Xi’s China could open up productive lines of inquiry for foreign observers at a time of diminished access to the PRC, as well as raise awareness of the importance of public discourse, propaganda, and information control practices as sources for and items of analysis.
- The English term “public opinion” denotes both opinions of the public, covering the population at large, and opinions expressed in public, which often reflect a small minority. The corresponding Chinese term, yulun 舆论, shares this ambiguity. For clarity, this paper uses “public opinion” to refer to the attitudes of the domestic population at large, and “public discourse” to refer to opinions expressed in public and in the media. “Popular nationalism” refers to widespread, publicly expressed anti-foreign attitudes favoring hard-line foreign policies.
- The surveys formed part of the Sinophone Borderlands project, funded by European Union’s Regional Development Fund (CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000791) and based at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Approximately 1,000 responses were collected in each of the 11 countries, for a total of 10,852 responses.
- The Indian and Kazakhstani scenarios stated, “An accidental clash has occurred on the [India]-China border between border patrol units” in place of the accidental collision between government ships. It also stated that “A Chinese army unit is at the scene demanding to arrest the [Indian] commander,” in place of a PLA Navy warship.
- Respondents in Japan and Vietnam increased their average estimate of China’s economic resolve by 1.5 and 1.0 percent respectively, but these effects did not reach conventional standards of statistical significance.