The problem with big claims about Chinese nationalism

Robert S. Ross built a reputation over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the leading realist analysts of Chinese foreign policy. He published a seminal article in 1986 highlighting the importance of the US-USSR-PRC “security triangle” in explaining China’s behaviour under Deng Xiaoping, and after the Cold War made a successful switch into the richer and murkier terrain of the domestic security situation of the CCP leadership and its relationship to Chinese foreign policy.

Ross’s shift in emphasis towards the importance of domestic factors in explaining China’s behaviour towards the outside world was foreshadowed in his 1986 piece, which noted:

The relative importance of domestic politics has been a function of the range of choice allowed by the pattern of triangular politics [ie. the international environment]. When the range of choice was narrow, domestic politics had a small impact on China’s US policy. When the choices expanded, domestic critics wielded greater influence on foreign policy making.

In recent years, the Boston College professor and Harvard Fairbank Center associate has become very keen on the idea of nationalistic public opinion as a singular driving force behind the Communist Party’s foreign policy.

One early example was 2009’s ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, which argued the  PLA Navy’s modernization, especially its aircraft carrier program, was irrational and against China’s national interest. Instead, Ross wrote, “widespread nationalism, growing social instability, and the leadership’s concern for its political legitimacy drive China’s naval ambition”. This contention provoked a lengthy response from Michael Glosny and Phillip Saunders, who pointed out a range of national interest arguments that could be made for China’s naval modernization.

Evidently unmoved by this critique, a 2011 piece in the National Interest produced a greatly expanded list of PRC foreign policy actions designed to appease nationalist public opinion. Although there is no question that domestic public opinion, including its loudly hawkish trends, form an element of the CCP leadership’s decision-making environment, there are plaisible interest-based explanations for each of the examples on Ross’s list:

  • The Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, in which a motley flotilla of fishing boats and patrol ships harassed a US surveillance ship. (Undesirability, from the PRC’s strategic perspective, of having US surveillance ships gathering data on its new submarine facilities at the bottom end of Hainan Island?)
  • China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen climate change conference. (PRC delegation was led by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has responsibility for China’s economic planning and thus a vested interest against binding carbon reduction targets. Repeated studies showing Chinese people to be very climate-aware.)
  • The harsh reaction to the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010. (US military support for Taiwan stands between the PRC and fulfillment of its long-stated “sacrosanct mission” of “national reunification”. This could be termed a tenet of nationalist ideology, but it is a very long-standing one, rather than a recent development.)
  • China’s repeated strong protests against joint US-Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in June-July 2010. (Also cited as an example of media-driven nationalist influence by Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel, though China wound back its statements somewhat when further exercises were announced in November 2010.)
  • The PRC’s lack of denouncement of North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. (Perhaps because North Korea is China’s only true ally in East Asia?)
  • The party-state’s overreaction to the September 2010 detention of Captain Zhan, the Chinese fisherman who rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the Diaoyu Islands. (Japan’s deviation from the established precedent of quickly releasing detained Chinese fishermen? Opportunity for China to use its burgeoning maritime law enforcement fleets to advance its sovereignty claims?)
  • Denouncing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. (CCP opposition to democracy activism in China?)
  • The treatment of Google. (The refusal to censor its search results?)

“[T]he source of all the aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” wrote Ross, is “the party’s effort to appease China’s nationalists”.

The same list has been extended and wheeled out again in the latest edition of one of the US’s top foreign policy journals Foreign Affairs, in a piece called ‘The Problem With the Pivot’.

For the benefit of any time-stretched readers, my problems with Ross’s argument, detailed below, are that it:

  1. Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
  2. Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
  3. Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
  4. Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
  5. Argues that the recent protests over Diaoyu caused the PRC’s foreign policy escalation, dismissing how protests might help in advancing the government’s policy objectives.


The argument hinges on the idea that deteriorating economic conditions in China have led the CCP state to make a play for nationalist legitimacy through foreign policy assertiveness. In 2009-10, readers are told, “China experienced the worst economic turmoil since the 1960s, following Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward” during which time “inflation increased more than tenfold”. What readers are not told is that in those two years the Chinese economy also grew by 9.2 and 10.4 percent, and that inflation was negative throughout most of 2009, and remained well below the long-term average of 4.26 percent until November 2010. It has fallen back steadily to just under 2 percent as of mid-2012.

The downturn of 2009-2010 barely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other periods of economic challenge in reform-era China. During the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, for example, China’s GDP growth dropped to 7.7 percent across 1998 and 1999. Ten years before that, through the political turmoil of 1989, China’s economic growth plunged to less than 4 percent, with inflation in the high teens in both 1988 and 1989 before being controlled the following year

This is probably not a case of statistics hiding the true economic situation. The Pew Global Attitudes poll has asked Chinese respondents (urban-weighted) three separate questions about their economic situation most years since 2007. None of the results indicate any decline in respondents’ perceptions of their own economic wellbeing or outlook over the 2009-2010 period. To say Prof. Ross overstates the severity of the economic downturn in China over the key period of the party-state’s alleged pursuit of nationalist kudos would be an understatement.

Interpreting such measures as appeasement of domestic nationalist demands also suggests a misreading of Chinese public opinion. It assumes that actions seen as aggressive outside China are also perceived as strong and praiseworthy within China. But on the contrary, as the online conversations translated here consistently indicate, the Hu government’s fierce diplomatic protests and limited, nonmilitary countermeasures are usually viewed as weak and cowardly among the nationalist-leaning sections of Mainland public — the very people that China’s recent assertive behaviour is supposed to be aimed at impressing.

Another result of the prefabricated assumption that a nationalist legitimacy ploy is guiding China’s foreign policy, is the dismissal of the strategic and economic significance of the Spratly and Diaoyu Islands:

[T]hese islands have little economic value (apart from fishing) and no mineral resources, and they are of minor strategic importance since they are too small to support military activities … Like the Spratly Islands, these [Diaoyu] islands are of little strategic or economic value.

Firstly, as the events this year at Scarborough Shoal and Diaoyu have made clear, fishing is anything but parenthetical in China’s island disputes. According to FAO statistics from 2004, Chinese fishers took 3.6 million tons of fish from the South China Sea, representing 25 percent of the country’s catch, and 34 percent came from the East China Sea. In 2007, Philippine and Malaysian fleets each took more than $1 billion worth of fish from the South China Sea area, while seafood accounted for 7 percent of Vietnam’s total exports in 2010.

The value of fisheries in remote, relatively untouched areas to regions with fishing communities or associated industries is only increasing, particularly given the dwindling coastal fish stocks in many of the South China Sea claimant countries. Local governments in China and Vietnam, for example, provide subsidies to encourage fisherfolk to venture into disputed waters, and the Hainan provincial government’s Fisheries Research Institute has argued China’s take should be increased, calling for 1450 additional boats to be sent to fish the South China Sea.

There are already producing oil and gas wells in the immediate vicinity of the Spratly Islands, operated by the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. The three countries are estimated to take 30 million tons of oil from the South China Sea each year, and the Philippines’ explorations in the Reed Bank have gone well this year. The US Geological survey has estimated there could be 28 billion barrels of oil beneath the South China Sea (and 100 million in the East China Sea), and that Chinese estimates are much higher.

Prof Ross is dismissive of the strategic significance of oil and gas generally. In ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, he argued that China’s own supplies of coal, along with hydroelectric and nuclear power, can supply China with nearly all of its energy requirements. He went on to point out: “China relies on imported oil for less than 10 percent of its total energy usage, and an increasing share of this oil comes across land borders with Central Asia and Russia.” Energy policy expert Will Rogers, too, has outlined reasons to expect a decline in the future importance of fossil fuels. But Rogers added that China appears to be betting on them nonetheless: “Whether those hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea are strategically important or not, the perception in Beijing seems to be that they are vital.”

As well, 10% of China’s total energy usage is no inconsequential figure. And one only need consider some of the powerful vested interests involved in securing the PRC’s oil supplies, among them a troika of giant SOEs with combined revenues of about RMB 4.7 trillion, to imagine how China’s foreign policy may not simply be made according to singular strategies like the pursuit of nationalist legitimacy. Prof Ross might argue groups like CEFC are “nationalists” needing to be appeased or else, but their influence has got little to do with the pursuit of popular CCP legitimacy and a lot to do with economic and political interest. If China’s strategic energy policy is irrational or sub-optimal, massive vested interests offer a much stronger explanation for this than an all-out attempt to impress nationalist public opinion.

And the strategic advantages that future control of the South China Sea and/or East China Sea would offer the PRC. It is not only China that relies on long-distance seaborne trade routes, but also its neighbourhood rivals. As Dominating the two China seas would not only eliminate the PRC’s own reliance on sea lanes currently controlled by its strategic rivals, it would put Beijing in a position to threaten economic supply lines to Japan, not to mention denying the US Navy its preferred thoroughfare between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. There is also the matter of the Chinese Navy’s submarine strategy, to which Tetsuo Kotani has argued the deep waters of the South China Sea may be integral.

During the 2010 Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands crisis, when a Chinese fishing boat captain was detained after ramming a Japanese patrol boat, protests up to several hundred strong took place in several cities. Prof Ross notes that, “Despite the state’s attempts to quell them, calls for protests circulated on the Internet, sparking demonstrations in front of not only the Japanese embassy but also the Chinese Foreign Ministry building (emphasis added).” The assumption being that the Chinese state has no power to prevent the outbreak of such protests, or their organization through the internet. Yet as it happened, the protesters on the scene were outnumberedfour-to-one by police, who shut them down after about an hour. The state had remained more-or-less fully in control all along.

In relation to this year’s Sino-Japanese crisis, following the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Diaoyu islands, Prof Ross pins the protests in cities across China as the cause of the PRC’s assertive moves to advance its claims. According to Ross, “This nationalist outcry led Beijing to escalate tensions with Japan,” by sending government surveillance ships and fishing boats to the disputed area. This neglects the advancement in China’s position in relation to its claims to the Diaoyu Islands, and overlooks the ways in which the massive protest rallies were sanctioned and guided by the PRC state.

Television, a state-controlled medium, is still the primary source of international news for the general public in Mainland China. Based on my own observations, state TV played outrage-inducing reports about the Diaoyu situation on high rotation in the direct leadup to the protests. This television coverage was sufficient to send Li Weizhi, a migrant worker in Shenzhen who didn’t even know the national anthem, onto the streets and into a “nationalist” frenzy.

Smaller-scale demonstrations had occurred in the preceding days, giving the party-state ample warning, had it wished to prevent them. But on the contrary, there was a clear absence of desire to prevent “the masses” (in fact a small minority) from taking to the streets in what would normally be illegal gatherings under PRC law. The protests do not befit description as state-sponsored, as some have claimed (some protesters in Beijing may have been “bussed in” from work units in neighbouring Hebei, but i never met any in the crowds there). But they were shaped, accommodated and easily halted by the authorities. This refutes the idea that the protests caused the Chinese state’s harsh countermeasures against Japan. In fact the main ones – baselines and patrols – were already annoinced before the mass protests occurred.

The reality may well be the opposite: allowing protests formed part of the PRC’s policy response. As Jessica Chen Weiss has shown, the People’s Republic has a successful recent history of deploying the strategic logic of anti-foreign protest: that focusing domestic popular outrage towards a particular foreign policy issue can allow an authoritarian state to demonstrate that it cannot back down from its position in international negotiations.

China’s motivation to control the Spratly Archipelago and the Diaoyu Islands is explainable without reference to a popular nationalist legitimacy ploy by a government in crisis. It may be playing a part, but if so it is a minor one, for the strategic and economic interests at stake, and the influences of vested interests, provide plenty of strong explanations for this behaviour.

Ironically, i agree with Prof Ross’s argument in ‘The Problem With the Pivot’, that the US’s high-profile “return to Asia” has not been conducive to stability, instead unnecessarily antagonizing China, feeding its insecurities, creating mistrust, and strengthening the hand of more hawkish players in the country’s foreign policymaking landscape.

But the impression that he and other proponents of this nationalism/legitimacy theory (e.g. John Lee and Susan Shirk) often seek to create — a tottering Chinese regime trying desperately to appease its nationalist critics in order to cling on to power — is a potentially dangerous one, as it implies the PRC could at any time make war on a whim for reasons that defy logic. Rather than favouring mutual confidence-building and coexistence, as Ross seemingly wants to argue for, this view of Chinese foreign policy leads logically to the conclusion that trust with China is impossible, and an ever-greater China-directed military buildup the only viable option.

Thankfully, Prof Ross’s analysis is far from the mark. Hawkish nationalist sentiment is not out of control in China.



– Ross repeats an incorrect rumour that Japan, South Korea and Australia “participated” in the annual US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises for the first time this year. Although foreign observers from 10 countries attended, the Philippines military clarified here that the US and the Philippines were the only participants.

– Military experts might take issue with the confident statement that the PLA is “unable to challenge U.S. dominance at sea or upend the balance of power in the region”. Erickson and Collins recently outlined at least 10 “key indicators of Chinese progress toward building a strong regional navy”. While China’s global naval capabilities will remain restricted for the foreseeable future, “The PLAN is acquiring the hardware it needs to prosecute a major regional naval showdown.”

– Although protest notices circulate online wthout CCP sanction, they dont produce mass protests without CCP sanction. Recent research has specifically highlighted the effectiveness of China’s decentralized internet censorship system in preventing undesirable offline mobilization.

One Comment on “The problem with big claims about Chinese nationalism”

  1. […] too many dots together into the same narrative arc — a little bit like Robert Ross trying to explain almost all assertive PRC behaviour by reference to domestic nationalism. Some public media statements may represent PLA thought, but most are more likely to be PLA […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s