Adam Ni is a China researcher at the the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Sydney. He can be found on his personal website here or on Twitter. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Effects of Chinese Nationalism on China’s Foreign Policy
Date Originally Written: April 15, 2019.
Date Originally Published: June 10, 2019.
Summary: Chinese nationalism can affect Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations through: 1) framing narratives and debates; 2) restricting Beijing’s foreign policy options; and 3) providing justifications for Chinese actions and/or leverages in negotiations. However, the effects of popular nationalism on foreign policy outcomes may not be significant.
Text: Chinese nationalism today is rooted in narratives of China’s past humiliations and weaknesses, present day revival, and aspirations for national rejuvenation. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actively tries to shape nationalist discourses to bolster its popular legitimacy. State-led nationalism attempts to cast Chinese foreign policy in a positive light, and to prevent discontent on foreign policy issues from kindling widespread criticism of the Chinese government for its perceived weaknesses and inability to uphold Chinese interests and dignity.
The rise of Chinese nationalism is often seen as a cause of China’s increasing assertive foreign policy, including its approach to territorial disputes. The argument is quite simple: China is becoming richer and more powerful, and as a result its citizens are more proud, and this is reflected in China’s new-found confidence. Despite the simple and intuitive appeal of this line of reasoning, the empirical evidence is unclear. Putting aside the complexity of defining Chinese nationalism in the first place, it is unclear that Chinese nationalism is in fact rising. Indeed, there are trends that may be working against rising nationalism, including increased exposure to foreign peoples and cultures due to economic globalization, and improved education.
Despite the lack of clarity regarding Chinese nationalism, there is evidence that Chinese public opinion is generally hawkish. The Chinese support greater defense spending and using armed forces to deal with territorial disputes, such as these in the East and South China Seas. They also see U.S. military presence in Asia as a threat. Generally speaking, younger Chinese hold more hawkish views than their parents.
Given these hawkish views, and even if assuming Chinese nationalism have risen over recent years, it does not necessarily follow that popular sentiments have a major effect on Chinese foreign policy. One study looking at China’s foreign policy in the South and East China Seas since 2007, for example, found that popular nationalism had minimal effects on China’s assertive turn. Indeed, other factors may be more important in Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations, including strategic considerations and preferences of top Chinese leaders.
The current international environment makes caution all the more important in China’s foreign policy-making. The intensifying strategic competition between the U.S. and China, and the increasing wariness with which countries around the world are viewing China’s growing power, makes China adopting nationalist prescriptions to its international challenges all the more risky.
In addition, China’s authoritarian political system arguably better insulates foreign policy making from public opinion than liberal democracies. For one, the ruling CCP does not face public elections. In fact, the Chinese government has at its disposal a range of powerful tools to shape public opinion, and if need be, shut down public debates. This include powerful state media and censorship systems, and the ability to silence dissent with swift and harsh efficiency.
Another difficulty in linking popular nationalistic sentiments to foreign policy outcomes is that Chinese nationalism gives rise to all kinds of foreign policy prescriptions, including contradictory ones. For example, nationalist discourses can prescribe a cautious approach to China’s international relations that focus on keeping a low profile, instead of advocating a confrontational approach.
Despite the difficulties in conceptualizing and measuring Chinese nationalism, there are a number of ways in which public opinion can affect China’s foreign policy. First, popular nationalist narratives, such as ones based on China’s past humiliations at the hands of encroaching foreign powers, frame and color contemporary foreign policy debates. In fact, a mentality of victimhood makes China more likely to react with a sense of grievance and moral righteousness to perceived slights to its dignity.
Second, Beijing’s spectrum of foreign policy options are constrained by popular sentiments. Perceived weakness and inability to defend China’s interests and dignity is costly for the Chinese government and leaders. The CCP have long feared that popular discontent on international issues could kindle widespread criticism directed at the Chinese government. Moreover, Chinese leaders are keen to appear tough on international issues to the domestic audience lest they weaken their position in the party system vis-à-vis their internal rivals.
Third, domestic pressures are sometimes used as justifications for Chinese actions or leverages in negotiations. Chinese leaders, for example, have attributed China’s more assertive stance in the South China Sea to the hardening of popular opinion. Appeals to domestic pressures driven by nationalistic sentiments do play a role in China’s foreign policy. Whether these purported pressures are real or not is another question all together.
The above analyses indicate that Chinese nationalism could affect China’s foreign policy in a number of ways despite the difficulties of working out precisely how much popular sentiments influence Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations. This inability to measure influence is complicated by the fact that China’s authoritarian system enables the CCP to shape public debates in a way that would be impossible in liberal democracies. The lines between state-led and popular nationalism are blurry at the best of times.
Lastly, understanding nationalist discourses in China is still important for analysing Chinese foreign policy because it provides the domestic context for China’s international actions. There is little doubt that nationalist discourses in China will continue to exert an important influence on Chinese perceptions of its national past and aspirations for the future.
 Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising? Evidence from Beijing,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Winter 2016/17), 7-43. Available at: https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/ISEC_a_00265.
 Jessica Chen Weiss, “How Hawkish Is the Chinese Public? Another Look at “Rising Nationalism” and Chinese Foreign Policy,” Journal of Contemporary China, published online March 7, 2019. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10670564.2019.1580427.
 Andrew Chubb, “Assessing public opinion’s influence on foreign policy: the case of China’s assertive maritime behavior,” Asian Security, published online March 7, 2018. See https://doi.org/10.1080/14799855.2018.1437723.
 Ying Fu and Shicun Wu, “South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage,” The National Interest, May 9, 2016. Available at: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/south-china-sea-how-we-got-stage-16118.