Posted October 2023
- BIO Andrew Chubb Fellow on Foreign Policy and National Security, Center for China Analysis
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.