CSR Blog: An Evaluation of Public-Related Origins of China’s Assertive Foreign Policy

By Yinxuan Wang

Since 2012, Chinese diplomacy has moved toward toughness, emphasizing China’s core interests – security, sovereignty, and development – continuing the trend that had begun in 2009. For instance, China has increased its maritime law enforcement ships in the South China Sea. In 2012, China sent coast guard ships to Diaoyu Island and started to exercise management rights there. The China–India border dispute gradually escalated beginning in 2013, resulting in a small-scale clash in 2020, which caused casualties. 

While assertive Chinese foreign policy has faced international obstacles—the US-China trade war, declining Sino–Australian relations, and impediments to China’s 5G technology exports—President Xi Jinping and Chinese diplomats still believe that China needs to “carry forward fighting spirit strengthening [its] fighting skills.” Facing China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, signs of instability have appeared internationally and domestically. Other countries have criticized China for using unprofessional and coercive diplomacy and have called for collective action against China’s action in the South China Sea, and fanatical Chinese nationalism is on the rise under President Xi’s leadership. Commentaries argued that Chinese foreign policy displaying the country’s “fighting spirit” would undermine President Xi’s government’s legitimacy.

This article examines two widely-held assumptions about the public-related origins of China’s assertiveness – domestic public opinions and unrests. One argues that Chinese foreign policy became assertive because of rising nationalism among the Chinese public. The other claims that Chinese foreign policy became assertive as a diversion tactic to distract public attention from domestic unrest. 

It is crucial to investigate the public-related causes of China’s assertiveness in foreign policy, in order to analyze the rising risks brought by such policies. I argue that the assertive shift is not a product of domestic public sentiment, nor is it intended to shift public attention from domestic unrest. Public opinion data show that China’s shift to assertive foreign policy engendered an increase in Chinese public awareness of diplomacy and China’s international role.  Neither do labor unrest data reveal a salient relationship between the number of labor strikes and major maritime disputes. 

Domestic Public Perceptions and China’s Assertiveness

Chinese government agencies often use domestic sentiments to justify China’s assertive foreign policies, accusing foreign entities of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” Scholars have argued that nationalism drove the shift toward assertiveness in China’s foreign policy. To evaluate whether public sentiments contributed to China’s change toward assertive foreign policy, this section uses the Committee of 100 US-China Public Perceptions Survey (C100 survey) conducted in 2007, 2012, and 2017 to study Chinese public perceptions of China’s global leadership and influence. The Committee of 100, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization in the US, surveyed 3,600-4,000 Chinese citizens in 2007, 2012, and 2017 about their perceptions of future global leadership and priorities in China’s policy agenda. However, data from the C100 survey undermines the reasoning that public opinions and nationalism triggered the change. Instead, it shows that Chinese people’s attention toward diplomacy increased only after China’s foreign policy had become assertive.

Figure 1 below shows the Chinese public’s responses to the question “Which nation or political region do you think will be the world’s leading superpower twenty years from now?” In 2007, 55 percent of respondents predicted that China would be the next global leader. This number steadily increased to 58 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2017. Also, from 2007 to 2017, an increasing proportion of Chinese people formed their views on the future distribution of international power. In 2007, 18 percent of respondents did not have any idea of who would be the next global superpower, but in 2012, this number decreased to 13 percent, and further down to only 5 percent in 2017 (see Figure 1). In addition, the proportion of Chinese people who believe that the United States can maintain its position as a world leader declined from 2007 to 2012 but rebounded from 2012 to 2017. These changes may have resulted from the 2008 financial crisis that negatively impacted Chinese perceptions of the United States. As the United States gradually recovered from the crisis, survey respondents have likely  reestablished their confidence in the capability of the United States. In 2017, the proportion of respondents who believed that the United States could maintain its international leadership status was even higher than in 2007.

These data convey three points of information: First, Chinese people had confidence in China’s future international status before their government became more assertive in 2009, and this confidence rose between 2007 and 2017. Second, the growth of public confidence in China’s future power did not increase because of China’s forceful foreign policy. Third, after China adopted its assertive foreign policy, more Chinese people formulated their own understanding of the world, and not all of them believed that China could become the next world leader. The number of people who answered “not sure” decreased by 8 percent, while those who chose China only increased by 5 percent. Based on responses to this question, the growth of Chinese people’s confidence in China’s power from 2012 to 2017 did not exceed the level of growth from 2007 to 2012, so this evidence is not sufficient to support the assertion that domestic popular sentiments led China to adopt more assertive foreign policies. 

Figure 2 shows answers to the question “What do you think China should do to become a global superpower?” In 2012, only 27 percent of respondents valued obtaining international status through diplomatic means, which was far lower than the proportion supporting “promote stable economic growth and improve domestic quality” and “strengthen the military to protect national interests.” However, in the 2017 survey, the proportion of people who thought diplomacy was important rose significantly to 36 percent, while that of who attached importance to domestic economic development dropped by 11 percent. The proportion of those who emphasized military development also dropped slightly.

As seen from Figure 2, heightened public attention to China’s diplomacy only appeared after the government adopted assertive foreign policies. However, contrary to expectations, the Chinese public did not emphasize military power as the government became more forceful. Together, these two trends further show that the Chinese people’s sentiments may not be the driver of the Chinese government adopting  assertive foreign policies, nor has the Chinese public become more hawkish because of government policies.

Therefore, from the C100 survey results, one can infer that the Chinese government’s focus on foreign policy affected the Chinese people’s views on world power distribution and the importance of foreign policy, rather than the other way around. At the same time, according to the results of the 2017 survey, since the Chinese people did not pay much attention to military strength, it can be inferred that around 2017, the people did not urge the Chinese government to take tough military measures in areas such as maritime disputes. However, it is also possible that the Chinese people reduced their emphasis on military development because they felt confident that the government’s military strength could effectively resolve international disputes and protect China’s interests. Nevertheless, the overall results of the C100 survey from 2007, 2012, and 2017 do not support the argument that the Chinese people’s sentiments have influenced the formulation of assertiveness in China’s foreign policy.

Worker Strikes and China’s Assertive Actions

Scholars also interpret China’s change in attitude as a diversionary effort, in which the government behaves aggressively in international affairs to distract the public from domestic issues and enhance its legitimacy. This section analyzes the relationship between China’s assertive international actions and domestic social unrest by comparing the timeline of China’s major maritime disputes compiled by the Council on Foreign Affairs and a labor strike dataset collected by the China Labour Bulletin, whose strike map database uses Chinese social media and official media to record labor strike data in China. Items include strikes, protests, and demonstrations in mainland China since January 2011. However, the data studied in this section does not reflect a correlation between the number of labor strikes and maritime disputes in China, especially from 2012 to 2016. Therefore, I argue that the Chinese government did not use diplomatic disputes to divert public attention from domestic issues in this regard, though I think further analysis should be conducted with a more comprehensive dataset to test the diversionary theory fully. 

The reason for using labor strike data as an example of domestic social instability is twofold. On the one hand, I assume that the Chinese government hopes the public pays less attention to the labor movement to maintain stability because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always claimed to serve the working class’s interests. On the other hand, workers’ strikes were chosen because of the dataset’s availability and integrity. 

The orange line in Figure 3 shows the number of labor strikes in the database for each month from January 2011 to November 2020. The number of worker movements in China rose slightly from 2011 to 2012, but surged in early 2015 and peaked in January 2016, which may be related to the 2015–2016 Chinese stock market turbulence.

The gray bars in Figure 3 display the number of major international maritime disputes that China was involved in each month. China was very active in international disputes in 2012 but its participation in international disputes decreased significantly in 2015 when domestic labor movements were on the rise. Later, from 2018 to 2020, after China’s domestic workers’ strikes decreased overall, the country once again increased its involvement in international disputes. Therefore, in general, there is no salient relationship between the number of labor strikes and major maritime disputes. 

However, starting from mid-2016, China’s participation in international maritime disputes often coincided with the increase in the number of domestic labor movements, in July and November 2016, January and May 2018, April and July 2019, and April 2020. Although there is no overall notable relationship between domestic labor strikes and China’s participation in maritime disputes, the data suggests that the Chinese government may be gradually adopting maritime disputes as a diversionary method in recent years.

Assertive Foreign Policy, Nationalism, and Authoritarian Resilience 

Based on data analyzed  in this article, there is little evidence to support that China’s domestic public sentiments and social instability caused the government to behave  more assertively in international affairs. In particular, the Chinese people paid more attention to international diplomacy only after the national government adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy approach, which contradicts the popular assumption that Chinese nationalism led to international assertiveness. However, it should be noted that the data used in this essay only reflect a small portion of China’s internal instability factors and assertiveness in foreign affairs. Because of the recent correlation between China’s participation in maritime disputes and the rising number of domestic labor strikes, it may be possible that China is adopting diversionary strategies in certain recent periods. Confirming this would require more in-depth studies of those time periods. 

Since the evidence shows that Chinese attitudes toward China’s foreign policy only changed following the government’s assertive shift, Chinese people’s nationalism and dissatisfaction with other countries may be inspired by the Chinese government. This phenomenon has become more apparent in 2020, as China exercised assertive foreign policy more frequently. After the COVID-19 pandemic was brought under control in China, heightened xenophobia and nationalism emerged within the country. Xenophobic sentiments were supported by the CCP through state officials publicly suspecting that the coronavirus was brought to China by foreigners and through the implementation of strict national entry bans. 

Popular nationalism is a double-edged sword. Although the Chinese government may currently desire these emotions, it is possible for such sentiments to develop beyond the government’s expectations. Such a situation occurred in 2005. To express its opposition against Japan’s revision of World War II in its history textbooks, the Chinese government tolerated domestic anti-Japan nationalist protests initially. However, along with the growth of popular nationalism, protesters began to damage public buildings and some protesters also directed their dissatisfaction at the government. These kinds of popular sentiments are not conducive to CCP’s authoritarian resilience. Similarly, nationalism induced by recent developments in China’s foreign policy may pose a challenge to CCP’s authoritarian resilience.

Furthermore, the potential impact of assertive foreign policy on China’s economy and international image needs to be considered  when evaluating its impact on CCP’s authoritarian resilience. China’s assertive diplomacy comes at the cost of rising international criticism and potential impediments in economic development. Facing domestic and international challenges, the Chinese government needs to carefully reflect on the formulation of its foreign policy, objectively measure the attitudes of the Chinese people, and reevaluate China’s position in the world system to seek stability and development.

Yinxuan Wang is a first-year M.A. student at Johns Hopkins SAIS concentrating in China Studies and International Political Economy. Her research interests include China’s social media and public opinion, China’s foreign policy, and China-Africa relations. She holds a B.A. in International Relations & the Global Economy and a B.S. in Applied & Computational Mathematics from the University of Southern California. Yinxuan is originally from Beijing, China.

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