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Nationalism in China is running high. Here’s how Beijing reins it in.

A new study shows Chinese citizens value the image of a peaceful China.

- June 1, 2020

U.S.-China relations sank further last week, as President Trump announced retaliatory moves in response to China’s new national security law for Hong Kong. Coincidentally, Friday was the 15th anniversary of China’s anti-secession law — and a senior defense official in Beijing vowed to “smash” any possibility of Taiwan independence.

Reunification with Taiwan has been a hot topic on Chinese social media, as retired military leaders and other commentators have clamored for Beijing to take the island by force. The faltering U.S. response to covid-19 is one apparent trigger, resulting in nationalistic calls in China to exploit the opportunity to reunify with Taiwan by force.

So far, the government has successfully resisted the nationalistic pressure to reunify Taiwan. Here’s what you need to know about the landscape of public opinion in China and what leeway the government has to manage it.

Suppression is an important part of the Chinese government’s tool kit in managing nationalism. The government can nip nationalist protests in the bud and warn netizens against “spreading rumors.” And it can easily censor and rechannel public discourse.

But pacifist strands of public opinion in China also help explain why the Chinese government is able to counsel restraint. In a new study, my collaborators and I sampled 1,485 Chinese citizens to match the National Census adult population on key demographic variables. We surveyed people online to allow for anonymity and avoid self-censorship biases. Here’s what we found.

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Domestic — not external — issues take precedence

Similar to previous research, we found public support in China for military spending in the abstract. The majority of our survey respondents (56 percent) favored an increase in spending — but their support deflated when domestic spending priorities were considered.

Respondents deemed every domestic policy goal on our list — expanding social welfare, increasing education investment and reducing income disparity — as more important than increasing military strength. In fact, “increasing military strength” ranked above only one other priority: “raising international prestige.”

These survey results suggest that most people prefer their government to prioritize domestic and social problems over military power and international prestige. When a trade-off is clear, people tend to be inward-looking in their priorities.

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Antiwar sentiments are embedded in the Chinese self-image

Seventy percent of respondents believed the avoidance of war should be the most important principle in Chinese foreign policy. Relatively few respondents (12 percent) did not share that belief. This finding converges with research by Alastair Iain Johnston showing that Chinese citizens view China as inherently peace-loving.

Surprisingly, respondents who expressed stronger national pride — when we asked whether they were “proud to be a Chinese citizen” — also expressed stronger antiwar sentiments. This contrasts with the popular assumption that nationalism promotes warmongering attitudes. These results suggest that national self-identification does not promote bellicose attitudes in itself. How people imagine their nation — the content of their national identity — also matters.

In China, antiwar sentiments in the national imagination may be a product of media socialization. China’s official state media consistently depicts China as a peace-loving nation, and the Chinese people as a peace-loving people. The rhetoric of peace and stability propagates in the public sphere, resonates in the media, and permeates into popular consciousness.

But can we take these antiwar sentiments at face value? Perhaps not. Officials have sometimes used the same rhetoric of peace and stability, even when China is acting assertively. In our survey, many of the same people with strong antiwar sentiments also supported military spending in the abstract, although their support diminished when they perceived a domestic trade-off.

Also, when Chinese citizens view themselves as a uniquely peace-loving people, as Johnston argues, a sense of national exceptionalism may hinder their ability to see things from the perspective of others. And antiwar sentiments do not mean that people in China would not support the use of force to defend their territorial interests, including Taiwan.

Still the reserve of antiwar sentiments tucked inside the Chinese national imagination is important, as the government can mobilize these feelings to de-escalate crises. In particular, a national survey experiment shows that when the government invoked the peaceful identity of the Chinese people, it could reduce the public opinion costs of backing down, even in a territorial crisis with Japan over the highly contentious Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

What’s next?

In recent years, China’s official media outlets have become more assertive and more eager to play the nationalist card. China’s media, for instance, went on offense to praise China’s response and deflect global criticism during the current pandemic. This has also emboldened social media — and a wider chorus of ultranationalistic voices on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo calling for the government to invade Taiwan amid the pandemic.

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A deep reserve of antiwar sentiments benefits Beijing, because it allows the government more room to contain nationalism, along with greater flexibility to de-escalate foreign crises. But diplomatic spats with foreign powers and narratives of victimization by foreigners can deplete this reserve.

In Greek mythology, Odysseus enjoyed and survived the song of the sirens because he had strong ropes to secure himself. In modern-day China, the government has benefited from similar anchors. But if the diplomatic spats and narratives of victimization persist, the danger is that the siren song of nationalism will grow louder while the ropes become thinner.

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Kai Quek is an associate professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong.