Chinese public opinion’s role in crisis diplomacy: preliminary findings from the field

The Lancaster University Confucius Institute and China Centre invited Dr Andrew Chubb of the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion to give a talk on his research into Chinese crisis diplomacy; in particularly, the role of Chinese public opinion.

Chubb began by sparing a thought for the Chinese refugees currently interned in the prison camps of his own native Australia, as well as the Uyghur Muslims interned in the camps of China. He then moved on to his research questions:

  1. what is the effect of mobilisations of nationalist public opinion in China on domestic crises?
  2. how do China’s neighbours interpret such mobilisations and what effect does it have?

Whilst the PRC diplomats often emphasise the public opinion factor, there is some doubt as to the influence that the public actually have in such an authoritarian regime. Despite these doubts, though, Chubb observed that the behaviour of these diplomats shows that they take the public opinion seriously, and that foreign diplomats are constantly monitoring Chinese Internet opinion.

Chubb cited the theory of democratic advantage in crisis bargaining, which posits that a democratic government’s public commitment to a particular course of action is more certain because of the possibility they will be voted out of office should they renege on their pledge, before moving onto (briefly) describing his methodology: going to different countries and talking to foreign policy-connected people there.

Chubb then went through a number of examples of different countries’ views on Chinese public opinion, starting with Korea. The two key issues in Korean-Chinese diplomacy are fisheries disputes and the THAAD controversy (over the deployment of US missile systems on Korean territory). Korean analysts tended to highlight the dualistic aspect of Chinese public opinion, in which it is both strategically manipulated by the PRC government whilst not being entirely under their control—China is authoritarian, he said, but not yet totalitarian.

He also highlighted the strange loop media referencing, where Chinese sources covering anti-THAAD protests in Korea where then cited by Korean sources opposing THAAD, which were in turn covered by the Chinese sources—China Daily loves to talk about non-Chinese media citing it, apparently. Ultimately, the Chinese strategy seemed to have resulted in short-term polarisation in Korea, but is likely to result in more cautiousness from the Korean elite in the long term.

He then moved on to Japan-China relations, still wounded by anti-Japanese protests in China in 2010 and 2012. Japanese analysts seem to prefer the view that [the Chinese] don’t really hate Japan, which Chubb suggested might be a form of cognitive dissonance resulting on Japan’s failure to account for its wartime atrocities. Japanese analysts were also more likely to characterise China’s actions as reckless, believing that the PRC government risked unleashing forces they would not be able to contain.

With time running short, Chubb had to skip over the other countries—Vietnam, the Phillipines and Taiwan. During the Q&A afterwards, one audience member made a point of thanking him for his very interesting coverage of a number of countries and one special administrative region of China, which was as spicy as things got. I was surprised that the Uyghur comment passed without issue, but it’s certainly a good thing that that scholar was in the audience to remind us all that the Sudetenland is German territory.

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