A growing conviction is taking root in America that Chinese views of the international system are becoming increasingly assertive and nationalistic. One of the prime referents for this contention is the Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao), a hugely popular Chinese newspaper that is frequently portrayed as promoting an ever more hardline and nationalist take on the world.
At first glance this reputation appears to be well deserved. In recent months the paper has published a number of combative editorials on the ongoing standoff with the Philippines regarding ownership of portions of the South China Sea and its territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In short, it appears to be at the epicenter of a growing wave of aggressive Chinese rhetoric. The actual content of the paper, however, does not live up to such a characterization.
The Global Times’ editorial page, called the International Forum (Guoji Luntan), contains a much more diverse set of views than the paper’s reputation would lead one to expect. Editorials have appeared in this influential section of the paper for well over a decade. A comprehensive reading of these pieces uncovers that while fervent nationalist perspectives were published during this time, the most prolific non-staff contributors to the International Forum did not frequently promote such a worldview. On the contrary, within this elite group a plurality of perspectives about both China and the rest of the international system was evident. Even more surprisingly, in recent years such diversity of opinion became more, rather than less, pronounced.
The top contributors to the International Forum fell into two distinct periods. The first of these lasted from 1999 through October of 2008. During this time the vast majority of authors were members of the Chinese foreign policy establishment. While a handful of these individuals consistently expressed combative views about China’s position in the world, most were not especially assertive and generally promoted conventional, albeit largely realist, stances on international relations. Writing that was quite internationalist and cosmopolitan in both tone and tenor often complemented these approaches. Nationalism, while visible, was far from the dominant note in such commentary.
Fall 2008 witnessed a sizeable shift in both the editorial page’s top contributors and the content of their essays, as a new crop of authors with backgrounds in economics assumed prominence.This new group’s celebrity stems as much from their popularity in cyberspace as stature in academic journals, and their writings focused on the repercussions of the worldwide economic downturn rather than traditional security concerns.
To be clear, since 2008 many of those who have written in the paper seemed to take pleasure in how the financial crisis negatively impacted the United States. In response, some also called on China to adopt a more assertive position within the international arena. However, many other contributors focused less on America’s supposed decline, and more on critiquing China’s own numerous shortcomings in responding to new economic realities. In addition, a number of authors continued to stress the importance of maintaining a stable relationship with America, and some even advocated the strengthening of multilateral cooperation to cope with the emerging problems within the global economic system. Indeed, especially nationalist interpretations of the worldwide economic meltdown were relatively rare and not especially confrontational.
The implications of such findings are wide-ranging, especially at a time when many outsiders have already concluded that China is singularly committed to taking a more aggressive stance toward resolving its outstanding territorial disputes. To begin with our findings directly challenge the dominant perception outside China about the Global Times. Guest contributors to the editorial section frequently express nuanced and complex worldviews. Readers encounter diversity and disagreement rather than uniformity and convergence of belief insides its pages.
The endurance and expansion of such diversity in the paper raises fundamental questions regarding the supposed broader confrontational trend in Chinese thinking about the rest of the world. The continuing reverberations within China caused by Bo Xilai’s rapid fall from grace earlier this year are a public example of how such differences persist, and are perhaps growing, within the highest levels of the Chinese leadership.
Pronounced debates could be found within China well before Bo’s fall, and were even visible in a paper where one would have least expected them to be present. We anticipate they will become more noticeable now that it has occurred. While such divides may not be visible at first glance, and may be temporarily silenced, they are easy to discover if one looks beyond the headlines. Only through making such an effort is it possible to gain a more accurate understanding of how Chinese views of the world are developing in response to an ever-changing global landscape.
Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor of Government in Cornell University’s Government Department. Jason Oaks is a graduate student in Cornell University’s Government Department.