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Chinese Nationalism: The CCP’s ‘Double-Edged Sword’

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China Power

Chinese Nationalism: The CCP’s ‘Double-Edged Sword’

Jessica Chen Weiss, author of the book Powerful Patriots, on nationalist protests and China’s foreign policy.

Chinese Nationalism: The CCP’s ‘Double-Edged Sword’

2012 anti-Japan demonstration in Beijing

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Voice of America

It’s a commonly held belief that Chinese nationalism is simply a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, to be picked up or discarded at will. As with much of our common “wisdom” about China, that’s an oversimplification of a far more complicated situation. The Diplomat talks with Jessica Chen Weiss, author of the book Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, about the central government’s complex relationship with mass demonstrations of nationalism.

In your book, you challenge the commonly held belief that nationalistic protests in China (and, by extension, nationalism in general) are simply drummed up by the Chinese government. How would you describe the relationship between the central government and public nationalism?

The Chinese government has selectively tolerated displays of popular nationalism, recognizing that it is both a potential liability and source of strength for the Chinese Communist Party. Demonstrations of nationalist anger can be helpful when the Chinese government wants to show resolve but can also make diplomatic compromise and flexibility more difficult. On the other hand, when street protests might have jeopardized efforts to improve diplomatic relations and defuse potential crises, Chinese authorities have repeatedly stifled grassroots nationalist protests — often at great cost to the Chinese government’s patriotic credentials and domestic legitimacy. As I note in Powerful Patriots, nationalist activists are often quietly cynical about the role they play. One activist told me: “To speak plainly, the government uses us when it suits their purpose. When it doesn’t suit them, it suppresses us. This way the government can play the public opinion card. After all, Japan is a democracy and respects public opinion. Even in a non-democratic country like China, the government can still point to the public’s feelings.”

In the book, you argue that the decision to encourage or discourage protests is often a form of foreign policy signaling. How can other governments (particularly Japan, one of the most popular targets for such protests) use this information to better respond to crises in their relationships with China?

Other governments can learn a lot about Chinese foreign policy intentions by observing whether China restricts or permits popular mobilization over a particular issue, including online petitions, street protests, and other symbolic attempts to defend Chinese sovereignty, including voyages to disputed islands and waters. After the 2001 EP-3 incident, for example, China prevented anti-American street demonstrations. These efforts helped China send a signal of reassurance to the Bush administration as both sides negotiated a face-saving compromise over the release of the American crew. As John Keefe, special assistant to Ambassador Prueher, later recounted: “University students wanted to hold demonstrations to vent their anger. The government forbade them from taking such action [and] repeatedly stressed… that this event should not be seen as a major affair in U.S.-China relations.”

Going all the way back to the May Fourth protests in 1919, there’s a long history of nationalist protests targeting foreign forces and the Chinese government simultaneously. Do you see a similar bifurcation of nationalist sentiment in China today?

As in the past, nationalist sentiments today often target the Chinese government for being too weak, soft, or corrupt to defend the national interest. This is one of the greatest risks that China faces in sharpening the double-edged sword of popular nationalism. It can easily wound the one who wields it. So far, the Chinese government has been able to retain the upper hand, mobilizing all levels of government to preserve social stability and promote “rational patriotism” when nationalist fervor begins to get out of hand. But the often heavy-handed orchestration of protests and propaganda fosters resentment and feelings of alienation among liberals and nationalists alike.

How has the advent of social media complicated Beijing’s ability to control or at least stage manage large-scale demonstrations?

The growth of the Internet and social media has made it more difficult for the Chinese government to repress nationalist demonstrations and made it easier for citizens to express views that diverge from the party line. As a senior Chinese diplomat told me, “I’m worried. Public opinion is more and more influential. There are many irrational voices.” So far, the government has been successful in restraining the scope and scale of nationalist protests, including after the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese coast guard vessels. But the uneven curtailment of nationalist protests has made it more difficult for foreign governments to discern China’s intentions. Chinese authorities have been especially vigilant in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, so foreign observers should be cautious when drawing conclusions from a handful of cities where protests may be highly scripted or conspicuously absent. Although state propaganda is partially responsible for inflaming popular anger, there is also a grassroots component to nationalist anger in China that is often overlooked. In fact, the stage-management of protests is often intended to minimize the risk that demonstrations spin out of control or stray off-message.

You point out that we haven’t seen large demonstrations in China on two subjects of great interest to nationalists: the Taiwan issue and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Why do you think these subjects are more or less “taboo” when it comes to protests?

On the issue of Taiwan, the Chinese government has used other tactics to show resolve rather than risk belligerent protests that might further alienate Taiwan voters and force the Chinese government to take military action. Ever since Chinese saber rattling during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis was judged counterproductive in Beijing, the Chinese government has tried somewhat softer tactics to dissuade Taiwan voters from supporting independence. The Chinese government prevented protests over Taiwan despite the election of Chen Shui-bian in March 2000 and his re-election and referendum on independence in March 2004. So far, the Chinese government appears to have determined that tolerating street protests over Taiwan independence is not worth the risk, particularly since political developments on Taiwan since 2008 have given China more confidence that diplomatic and economic trends are favorable. Still, foreign support for Taiwan has continued to spark nationalist anger, including an online petition against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2010 that disappeared shortly after netizens called for street protests.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are another important space to watch. So far, nationalist anger at Vietnam and the Philippines has been largely confined to the Internet in China. Even the relatively nationalist Global Times has cautioned that “indulging anger and fantasizing confrontation” is not the right way to manage disputes in the South China Sea. After Vietnamese protests against China’s deep-water oil rig escalated to violence in May 2014, killing several Chinese workers, state-run and commercial media in China were conspicuously restrained in covering the riots, emphasizing Vietnamese efforts to arrest the “troublemakers” and characterizing the violence as more anti-foreign than specifically anti-Chinese. I suspect that Chinese calls for protests against Vietnam were shut down because China already controls the Paracel Islands and has no need to show further resolve. Allowing protests against Vietnam would have added fuel to the fire of Vietnamese anger and might have provoked further attacks on Chinese citizens in Vietnam.

You describe the management of nationalist demonstrations as a short-term asset but a strategic liability for Beijing. Are there more productive (and less volatile) ways for the Chinese government to handle strongly-held nationalist sentiments?

The selective tolerance of nationalist protests has bred cynicism both at home and abroad, feeding skepticism about the sincerity of “highly unusual” outbursts of “assiduously reported” nationalist sentiment. Fostering a range of views would increase the transparency of Chinese intentions. A more open airing of views would also give greater credibility to the nationalist sentiments that are expressed. When citizens, bloggers, and intellectuals feel safe in expressing their opinions without fear of censors or vigilante-style “human flesh search engines,” foreign governments are more likely to believe that these sentiments are genuine rather than the result of deference or “brainwashing.” Encouraging the publication of both sides of a foreign policy debate, as the Chinese media has begun to do on certain issues, gives the government more diplomatic room to maneuver. But a more diverse foreign policy debate in China would also serve the government’s interests. When typically liberal and conservative voices agree on issues such as the defense of Chinese sovereignty over disputed islands, the apparent unanimity of popular sentiment will be much more convincing.