A Glimpse Into Chinese Nationalism
Image Credit: REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

A Glimpse Into Chinese Nationalism


Sino-Japanese ties have for years been strained on territorial and historical issues, reaching a low point in 2012 when Tokyo’s decision to nationalize the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea threw fuel on long simmering Chinese animosity rooted in Japan’s World War II aggression. China’s Internet overflowed with jingoistic sentiment while tens of thousands across the country hit the streets to decry perceived imperialism. The protests soon gave way to vandalism, looting and assault directed at anything or anyone appearing to be associated with Japan.

These extreme protests and general anti-Japan sentiment have been linked to China’s education system. In the wake of the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square uprising, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched its “Patriotic Education Campaign.” It shifted from emphasis on the triumphs of socialism and class struggle, to focusing attention on the atrocities inflicted by foreign enemies during the “Century of Humiliation” spanning from the 1839 Opium War through the particularly bloody Japanese invasion of WWII. The 2012 protests suggested Chinese leaders had perhaps too successfully molded their citizens into rabid nationalists, which could potentially force their hand in escalating to war.

A new study to be published this month by the University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Centre offers evidence that can be used to test this assumption. The study sought to examine Chinese public opinion on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, as well as conflicts over islands in the South China Sea. It surveyed more than 1,400 respondents in five major Chinese cities during March 2013.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

One of the less surprising survey findings was that respondents overwhelmingly supported all of China’s territorial claims, including the controversial “nine-dashed line” that stretches deep into the South China Sea just short of the Vietnamese, Philippine, Bruneian and Malaysian coasts, with an average response of more than 90 percent confidence in China’s position on every conflict. The surprising findings, however, came when respondents were presented with hypothetical policy options that the Chinese government should have at its disposal for dealing with these disputes.

“There were really only two unpopular policies,” said Andrew Chubb, a Ph.D candidate in international relations at the University of Western Australia, who conducted the study. “The famously unpopular ‘shelve disputes and pursue joint development’ policy that got so much criticism, and ‘send in the troops, don’t hesitate to fight a war.’”

Among the most popular options were making use of popular activism and strengthening international publicity of China’s position, with more than 80 percent support each. Economic sanctions and diplomatic measures like canceling official visits and reducing cooperative projects were also backed by solid majorities.

Seeking compromise through negotiation and submitting the disputes for UN arbitration both also received majority approval, with over 57 percent and 61 percent support respectively. Meanwhile, asked if they thought sending in the troops would be an acceptable option for the government to have on the table during an unspecified crisis, 41 percent agreed regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and 45 percent in the South China Sea.

Chubb explains that support for each policy option was more-or-less the same on both the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes, except on the possibility of sending in troops. To him, this suggests a sort of “rational nationalism,” since Chinese have far greater historical grievances with Japan than with any nation in Southeast Asia. Yet there was less support for military action in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, where China would be up against a highly capable Japanese military, possibly joined by the United States. On a separate question, support for sending in the troops dropped by 13 and 14 percentage points on the Senkaku/Diaoyu and South China Sea disputes, respectively, when respondents were presented with the possibility that it would harm China’s economy.

To Chubb, the fact that a majority agreed that it wouldn’t be in China’s national interest to send in the military in either dispute, even if the other side took a provocative stance and sought to escalate tensions, “seems to suggest that a lot of Chinese citizens would be amenable to national interest-based arguments against war that would jeopardize economic ties if the CCP were to decide that it needed to de-escalate tensions.” He added, “So we probably can’t see any evidence there for China’s population pushing leaders into an unwanted war.”

Another bit of conventional wisdom the survey challenges is the idea that China’s “post-90s” generation, which grew up after the Tiananmen crackdown and was subject to the full force of Patriotic Education, is more intensely nationalistic and thirsty for revenge against Japan. Only 37 percent of post-90s respondents approved of sending in the troops to deal with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, while 42 percent of those born before 1990 supported the idea.

This doesn’t mean that the “Patriotic Education” has been entirely ineffective on post-90s youth. While they were less likely than elders to favor sending in the military, they were slightly more likely to say they viewed the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute as a continuation of the Century of Humiliation. “You might say that the younger generations are more nationalistic if by that you mean they’re more likely to view the world through the lens of the past,” Chubb said. “But they’re not more nationalistic if we’re talking in terms wanting to go to war. Essentially it suggests that you need to tease the two apart.”

Not all of the survey findings suggested a future de-escalation of tensions. Groups that disproportionately advocated military intervention, even at the expense of the economy, and opposed compromise on all disputes included males and those in the middle-class (making more than 10,000 yuan per month). Over the next two decades, these demographics are poised to grow significantly with the number of excess adult males relative to the female population poised to more than double (due to sex-selective abortion) and the size of China’s middle class expected to quadruple.

“As China’s economic development continues, we can probably expect to see more and more people joining [the middle class] ranks and quite possibly believing that some islands either in the South or East China Sea are something perhaps worth starting a war over,” Chubb said.

“But,” he added. “It’s a big step to go from that and assume that the Communist Party will then take them up on that idea.”

In a new book titled Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, Yale Assistant Professor of Political Science Jessica Chen Weiss argues that over the past three decades, China’s government has selectively allowed or repressed nationalist protests in order to achieve certain diplomatic aims. Allowing the 2012 anti-Japan protests, for instance, was meant to signal China’s resolve, whereas small-scale protests two years earlier – also over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute – were suppressed in order to maintain the diplomatic relationship and signal willingness to compromise. Both approaches to handling nationalist sentiment entail risks though.

“When nationalist protests are raging in the streets, it’s very difficult for the Chinese government to make compromises and wind those protests down without looking unpatriotic,” Weiss said. “But at the same time, the Chinese government is often quite selective in determining when those protests take place at all.”

One common belief holds that the Chinese government simply turns nationalist protests on and off periodically as a way to let citizens blow off steam and redirect anger over domestic issues toward foreign enemies, but Weiss cautions that this is an over-simplistic view. “The government does play a role in allowing these demonstrations to spill forth into the streets,” she says. “But often they aren’t encouraging them, and even when they are encouraging them, it’s more a process of stage-managing grass roots expression of anger and trying to mitigate the risk that these turn against the government.”

She points to small anti-Japan protests that were repressed by the Chinese government in 1985, but continued sporadically nonetheless and began including slogans against corrupt officials thought to be selling the country out by taking a soft line on Japan. By 1986 through 1987, they had morphed into full-blown democracy protests that would ultimately lay the foundation for the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. This, Weiss explains, is the danger of using nationalism as a “safety valve.” It only works so long as Chinese leaders deliver diplomatic victories. “Of course China’s leaders have a lot of ability to repress popular demonstrations,” Weiss says. “But to do so makes them look even more hypocritical or even weaker than they would have if they had never let people out into the streets in the first place.”

For the moment, Chubb’s survey suggests that China’s leaders have been relatively successful in curbing calls for war. State-controlled media actually had a subduing effect on jingoistic sentiment regarding territorial disputes. Those who learned about them through state-owned television and newspapers were more likely to favor compromise than those who got their information through unofficial sources like the internet and Weibo. The government’s relatively moderate stance led to a public that was overall “satisfied, but not impressed,” according to Chubb’s survey. On a 100-point scale, respondents rated the government performance on average in the mid-to-upper 70s on each territorial dispute, while fewer than one-in-ten gave a “fail” score of less than 60 percent.

Chubb cautions that the results of his study aren’t definitive, and that a clearer idea of Chinese public opinion on these issues will emerge after another round of surveys is completed later this year. While he’d be hesitant to make any concrete foreign policy recommendations based on the current data, he said there may be some key takeaways. One is that China’s state media isn’t simply whipping up nationalism on a routine basis; in fact, it tends to present information to the Chinese public in a way that makes compromise seem palatable and war undesirable. On the other hand, the results suggest that Chinese diplomats may not be as constrained in international negotiations as they tend to suggest. “China often likes to tell its interlocutors that it’s under a great deal of pressure from nationalistic public opinion,” Chubb said. “They might sincerely believe that to be the case, but at the same time, that shouldn’t simply be swallowed whole or even exaggerated, as it tends to be when it goes through the processing of the Western media.”

Eric Fish is a Beijing-based freelance journalist.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief