- Chinese people have diverse views and opinions on a wide range of foreign policy issues that do not necessarily align with official policy and state propaganda.
- Despite the absence of electoral accountability, public opinion can matter for foreign policy making because the government’s concern for political legitimacy gives it an incentive to respond to public preferences on foreign affairs.
- A better understanding of Chinese public opinion will provide more nuanced insights into what factors drive and constrain China’s foreign policies.
In the first top-level meeting between the Biden administration and the Chinese government, on March 18, 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska, the two teams went off script on live television and exchanged heated words that were broadcast around the globe. Remarks by China’s foreign affairs chief, Yang Jiechi, went viral on China’s social media platforms, with hundreds of thousands of views, shares, and comments. A particular message from Yang to his American counterparts, “This is not the way to deal with Chinese people,” was an instant hit. In a matter of days, T-shirts, canvas handbags, and phone cases printed with Yang’s retort were selling in online stores. There was little question that Yang, a seasoned diplomat fluent in English, had both the American and the Chinese audiences in mind when uttering those strong words.
Conventional wisdom holds that public opinion matters only in democracies. But the Alaska episode suggests that Chinese leaders are mindful of public perceptions of their performances on the world stage. It is also consistent with a long-held view among China watchers that Chinese leaders are under tremendous domestic pressure to act tough on the international stage and cannot afford to appear soft with their foreign rivals. Advancements in communication and social media technologies have further increased the pressure, as news and nationalistic sentiments can spread like wildfire online, despite sophisticated censorship.
Public opinion matters for political legitimacy
Scholars have identified two channels through which public opinion may influence foreign policy in democracies: selection and responsiveness. The selection mechanism refers to citizens’ ability to electorally choose leaders who share their foreign policy preferences, whereas the responsiveness mechanism refers to leaders’ incentive to respond to public opinion while in office, out of concern that rebuffing the public could be politically costly.
Although a selection mechanism may not be applicable for public opinion to matter in China, a responsiveness mechanism can nevertheless exist. Such responsiveness to public opinion arises from a concern for political legitimacy rather than for electoral costs.
Contemporary political philosophers highlight two sources of political legitimacy: procedural legitimacy, characterised by wide and equal citizen participation in decision making, and performance legitimacy, characterised by high-quality outcomes from decisions made. Authoritarian governments are typically viewed as having weak procedural legitimacy, making them more dependent on bringing better economic outcomes to gain performance legitimacy. Indeed, it is often said that the Communist Party of China (CPC) enjoys performance legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people by raising their living standards through rapid economic growth.
However, incorporating public opinion into decision making can enhance procedural legitimacy for authoritarian governments by giving citizens a sense of inclusion and influence on policy decisions. China scholars, for instance, have argued that a series of input institutions, such as the mayor’s mailbox and public consultations, which allow people to express their concerns and grievances, have contributed to the CPC’s legitimacy and resilience.
Government monitoring and response to public opinion on foreign policy
Does the Chinese government monitor and respond to public opinion on foreign policy issues? The annual reports titled Analysis of Public Sentiment on China’s Internet, compiled by the People’s Daily’s Online Public Opinion and Public Policy Research Center, provide valuable clues for answering this question.
The first such report, published in January 2008, proclaimed that a new mechanism for public opinion to form had emerged in the Information Age. It observed that individuals were more willing to express their opinions online than in person, and that the convergence of public opinion online could put enormous pressure on the government. Among other things, the reports detail the government’s successes and failures at various levels and in a range of agencies with respect to handling online public opinion crises each year, and they note numerous cases where government policies have adapted in response to a crisis.
Since 2011, foreign policy issues have started to appear on the list of China’s “top 20 Internet events of the year.” These foreign policy issues include not just territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Diaoyu islands, but also such events as the 2015 European refugee crisis and President Xi’s visit to the US. In 2016, the US presidential election made it into the top five Internet events of the year, along with the G20 Hangzhou Summit and the South China Sea ruling, while the China–US trade war was by far the most discussed Internet event of 2018, surpassing any domestic events.
The increasing attention that the Chinese public have paid to foreign affairs likely reflects both the fact that their country finds itself in a rapidly changing external environment and a sense that their personal lives may be impacted by China’s foreign relations, the trade war being a prime example.
There is also evidence in their rhetoric and postures that Chinese officials do respond to public preferences, as suggested by Yang’s remarks in Alaska. A further example is the phenomenon of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy — the widely noted fact that in the last few years, Chinese diplomats have adopted a more vocal and assertive posture in public settings and on social media, breaking from a much longer tradition of keeping a low profile. The approach has been heavily criticised by Western media and officials and seen as counterproductive to China’s foreign relations; however, there is little sign of it going away. One plausible explanation for the phenomenon is that Chinese citizens are highly supportive of this new style of public diplomacy. From the government’s perspective, aligning with public preferences in foreign policy helps strengthen regime legitimacy; such legitimacy, in turn, facilitates the mobilisation of societal resources for achieving foreign policy goals.
Beyond the rhetoric and postures, substantive policies can also be influenced by public opinion. Rhetoric and postures adopted by high-level diplomats can have foreign policy consequences because they commit a government publicly to a hard-line position that can be costly to retreat from when specific policies are made. Domestic opposition within the party, foreign governments, as well as the public may all scrutinise the connection between words and deeds, and impose various costs if there are obvious inconsistencies between the two.
Coming out of the Alaska meeting, for example, any compromise by the Chinese side would have been viewed as bowing to US pressure and led to criticism by the domestic public for not protecting China’s national interests; moreover, other countries would have inferred that China did not mean what it said at such a high-profile event, which would have undermined China’s international credibility. Neither would have been a desirable outcome for the Chinese leadership. Thus, the public rhetoric and posturing have, in this instance, shrunk the manoeuvring space for Beijing and made certain policy goals harder to achieve.
Public opinion is not necessarily aligned with state propaganda
There is one remaining question: given that the Chinese government possesses powerful means to shape public discourse, can Chinese citizens develop independent policy preferences that differ from state propaganda? Recent scholarships suggest the answer is yes.
Using survey data collected through a variety of channels and methodologies, researchers have found that Chinese citizens have diverse, well-formed, and coherent views on domestic issues related to politics and the economy, as well as foreign policy issues ranging from trade and foreign direct investment to peacekeeping and territorial disputes. Studies further show that not all citizens are supportive of current government policies, nor do all their views reflect state propaganda. And, despite the risks, they are willing to share their opinions.
On the Taiwan issue, for example, two recent studies demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, only a slim majority of Chinese people support armed unification of the island. Even more surprisingly, some openly admit that they are fine with the mainland and Taiwan going separate ways.
Indeed, it has become harder for the state to manage public opinion as more Chinese people find ways to connect to the outside world — either physically, through travel and study, or virtually, as the country’s Internet users reached one billion. Moreover, compared with domestic events, it is more challenging to censor or “guide” public opinion about foreign affairs, with nationalist sentiments easily becoming inflamed and in danger of spinning out of control.
The simplistic view that public opinion on foreign policy in China is either irrelevant or easily manipulated needs updating. A better understanding of Chinese public opinion will provide more nuanced insights into what factors drive and constrain China’s foreign policies.
Part of this essay draws on the author’s article “Chinese Public Opinion about US–China Relations from Trump to Biden” in the Chinese Journal of International Politics, published by Oxford University Press. It is available at https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/poac001.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.