CDT Bookshelf: Interview with Jessica Chen Weiss

Jessica Chen Weiss is assistant professor of political science at Yale University and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (2014), which explores the impact of  and popular protest on China’s foreign relations. I spoke with Weiss about her research and the Chinese government’s management of and shifting attitude toward anti-foreign between 1985-2012.

 China Digital Times: What sparked your interest in researching China’s management of nationalist/anti-foreign protest directed at Japan and the United States? What was your experience like accessing information and doing field research for your dissertation in China? 

Jessica Chen Weiss: My first visit to China was two months after the 2001 plane collision incident. That summer was my first encounter with two faces of Chinese nationalism: outrage at US military surveillance along China’s coastline, and jubilation at winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics. With my classmates from Beijing Normal University, we joined the crowds celebrating in Tiananmen Square. Four years later, I was struck by how little we understood about the large-scale street protests against Japan that erupted in March and April of 2005. The US media, in particular, was filled with speculation about whether these protests were beneficial or dangerous to social stability. There was no consensus about how to interpret the protests, which piqued my curiosity and quickly became the focus of my research.

As a doctoral student, I spent over a year in China between 2006 and 2007 on a Fulbright-Hays grant. Most of my initial field research was spent conducting nearly two hundred interviews with activists, government officials, diplomats, students, journalists, and foreign policy experts. I also gathered many of the written materials that I use in the book from libraries, bookstores, and the Internet.

CDT: Why have scholars overlooked the significance of nationalist/anti-foreign protests in shaping China’s foreign policy from 1985-2012? 

JCW: There is a great deal of excellent scholarship on Chinese nationalism, both popular and state-led. But there has been less attention to how China has managed nationalist protests over time and what that pattern reveals about Chinese foreign policy. As I note in Powerful Patriots, conventional assessments have paid more attention to the “ones” than the “zeros,” focusing on protests that have happened rather than those that were prevented. Choosing cases in this way tends to understate the Chinese government’s ability to mitigate the impact of popular nationalism on foreign policy. The regime is worried about grassroots nationalism, but it is not paralyzed. China’s authoritarian leaders are most constrained by popular sentiments when protesters are in the streets. But the Chinese government is not feeble. When it chooses to mount the effort, it is usually capable of repressing popular mobilization. Nonetheless, the costs of curtailment and the risk that repression will fail create incentives for the government to take a tough foreign policy stance, easing domestic pressures and persuading protesters to desist.

CDT: In Powerful Patriots (2014), you explain that China neither ignores its people’s anti-foreign sentiment when handling foreign disputes nor does it let itself be controlled by it to the point of hindering rational diplomacy. Rather, you argue, it is the way the authoritarian Chinese government manages nationalist protest by giving it a “red light” or “green light” that helps it negotiate strategically with foreign powers.  Has China ever mismanaged nationalist/anti-foreign protest to the detriment of its diplomatic objectives during the period you focused on from 1985-2012? If so, how? Did it shift strategies as a result?

JCW: China’s efforts to limit the size of anti-Japanese protests during the 2010 trawler crisis may have unwittingly led Japan to underestimate Chinese resolve during the crisis over Japan’s purchase of three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012. China’s demonstrated ability and willingness to restrain anti-Japanese protests surrounding the September 18th anniversary in 2010 appear to have reduced the credibility of nationalist pressure two years later. Since the government had managed to curtail protests after signs of domestic dissent emerged in 2010, many Japanese observers reasoned that the Chinese government would be even more vigilant before the leadership transition in 2012. Although Chinese authorities did step up efforts to manage the risk that anti-Japanese demonstrations got out of control before the 18th Party Congress in 2012, China did not curtail the protests before taking a series of unprecedentedly assertive measures to undermine Japan’s control over the islands and assuage public anger. The anti-Japanese protests in 2012 were the most widespread wave of nationalist protests to have occurred in post-Mao China, surprising foreign observers—including then-Prime Minister Noda—in their scope and scale. Had the initial wave of anti-Japanese protests in August been more credible in signaling Chinese resolve, the Japanese government might not have moved forward so quickly with the purchase of the islands in September.

CDT: You explain that the Chinese word for crisis (weiji) means both danger (wei) and opportunity (ji).  What key dangers and opportunities did China consider when it allowed nationalist protests after the 1999 U.S. NATO airstrike bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and when it restrained protests after the 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane? You describe China as navigating its management of anti-U.S. protests to its diplomatic advantage after these events.  Were there any longterm drawbacks to the way China used popular opinion to handle these crises?

JCW: Crises are opportunities in the sense that they provide a focal point for altering foreign perceptions and changing the course of diplomatic relations. But crises are also moments of danger for the course of bilateral relations and domestic stability. After the 1999 embassy bombing, the Chinese leadership chose to allow anti-American protests, weighing the benefits of showing the United States that China would not be “bullied” against the risks of allowing nationalist protests at a sensitive time. In 2001, the Chinese government chose to repress anti-American protests, prioritizing flexibility and progress in US-China relations over the costs of looking unpatriotic.

The 1999 embassy bombing demonstrations began spontaneously but quickly became scripted as Chinese authorities sought to regain the upper hand. As the embassy bombing protests appeared more and more choreographed, foreign credulity diminished. One consequence has been persistent suspicion that nationalist demonstrations in China are fabricated by the government rather a sincere reflection of popular feeling. As I note in Powerful Patriots, however, the outburst of nationalist anger in 1999 left a lasting impression on American observers. Had the 1999 demonstrations appeared wholly manufactured, U.S. officials should have been more dismissive of Chinese efforts to restrain protests during the 2001 spy plane incident. Instead, American officials recognized that the Chinese government was partially responsible for fanning the flames of nationalist sentiment. Yet those flames were still difficult for the government to tamp down without getting burned.

CDT: You write that the Chinese government refers to the “hurt feelings” of Chinese nationalist protesters as a power ploy in diplomatic negotiations.  With the rapid growth of social media in China that you cite, especially from 2006-2010 when people turned to the Internet to express their anti-Japanese views on microblogging websites, was China’s protester-focused bargaining tool compromised?  Does China present popular online sentiment in negotiations and do foreign powers take this data into account when making compromises given the climate of Internet censorship?

JCW: The explosion of Weibo, QQ, and other social media platforms has facilitated more viral forms of mobilization, with calls for protest less centered on long-standing activists based in Beijing, Shanghai, and other first tier cities. The diffusion of protest mobilization and online sentiments could theoretically strengthen the credibility of grassroots nationalism as a force that is difficult for the government to reckon with. Yet the government has still demonstrated its ability to restrain nationalist protests when it chooses to mount the effort, illustrated by its success in preventing large-scale anti-Japanese protests surrounding the September 18th anniversary in 2010.

In addition, redoubled efforts to “guide public opinion” and crack down on social media also undermine online discourse as a sincere reflection of public opinion. The more capable the government appears of shaping popular sentiment at will, the less the government can credibly claim to be constrained by public opinion. By discouraging and censoring alternatives to the official narrative of China’s “national humiliation,” the government has fueled suspicions that the apparent chorus of nationalist outrage is more orchestrated than genuine.

CDT: China saw large-scale anti-Japanese protests in 1985, repressed protests in the 1990s, encouraged them again in 2005 and 2012, and held back again from 2006-2010.  What did you learn about China’s relationship with Japan by examining its management of anti-Japanese protests over time that was not obvious initially?

JCW: Through the lens of how China has managed anti-Japanese protests, we can trace the ups and downs in China’s relationship with Japan over the past three decades. What was surprising to me is how much worse the problem of credibility has become. Both governments have increasing difficulty convincing the other side that their domestic constraints are real and their efforts to avoid confrontation are sincere. In prior decades, leaders in both Japan and China acted to restrain and distance themselves from nationalist activists and extreme views. After the 1985 anti-Japanese protests, Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine because he recognized that his actions were undermining the position of moderate leaders in China. Although the two governments sought to repair relations after the 2005 anti-Japanese protests, these efforts fell apart spectacularly with mutual accusations during the 2010 trawler crisis and escalating tensions surrounding the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu island purchase. What each government sees as its own good faith efforts have been regarded as part of a conspiracy to challenge the status quo by the other side.

 CDTYou quote popular blogger Han Han as saying, “When the leaders express condemnation, it means that you’re allowed to express condemnation. When the leaders express regret, it means your time for expressing condemnation is over…This is because they’ve played a big chess piece and it would be inappropriate for you, a little chess piece, to jump off the board.”  To what extent do Chinese people engaged in anti-foreign, nationalist protest believe like Han Han that the Chinese government views them as pawns in the bargaining room?

JCW: Long-time activists are quite savvy—even cynical—about the role they play in helping the Chinese government achieve its diplomatic objectives. One activist I quote in Powerful Patriots told me: “To speak plainly, the government uses us when it suits their purpose. When it doesn’t suit them, it suppresses us. This way the government can play the public opinion card. After all, Japan is a democracy and respects public opinion. Even in a non-democratic country like China, the government can still point to the public’s feelings.”

Protesters are not always so attuned to the larger picture. For example, one young man who organized a group of friends to take part in the 2005 anti-Japanese protests met an older woman during the demonstrations who later turned out to be a plainclothes security agent. She followed him for the rest of the year, checking up on his activities. Since then he has become disenchanted, warning others not to participate in these kinds of demonstrations.

CDT: You write, “Protests are easier to nip in the bud than to suppress after they have begun.” What are your thoughts on the September 28, 2014 “Occupy Central” Hong Kong protests? How might these protests impact China’s management of nationalist protests on the Mainland in the near future?

JCW: Events in Hong Kong illustrate how difficult it is to curtail protests once they have gained momentum and international attention. The possibility of using force to disperse protesters is a very unattractive option, particularly because it may galvanize even more citizens to stand in solidarity with the movement, as we saw after the night of September 28, when Hong Kong police used tear gas against protesters armed only with umbrellas and makeshift masks. The demonstrations in Hong Kong and the possibility of spillover into the mainland have put the Chinese government on high alert for anything that might trigger instability. Until the situation in Hong Kong abates, I suspect that we are unlikely to see nationalist protests being tolerated in mainland China, unless they are aimed against foreign “interference” and support for “Hong Kong independence,” as the People’s Daily recently warned.

CDTWhat’s next for you?

JCW: I am currently working on several papers and a second book project on how domestic politics have contributed to cycles of confrontation and cooperation in China’s foreign relations. With the growth of Chinese military and economic power, we have seen a wide range of responses to China, with some leaders taking tough stands and others making a point of not provoking Beijing. At the same time, the debate over a rising China’s future intentions has overlooked important variation in China’s willingness to accommodate or push back against foreign interests. I highlight the importance of campaign rhetoric, election cycles, and domestic political constraints in shaping Chinese perceptions of and behavior toward foreign leaders.