Yes, Chinese people feel strongly about China’s island claims.
Nationalist sentiments represent both an opportunity and a challenge for the Chinese government, which wants to harness public opinion but fears its power to destabilize the regime. So far, Beijing has reiterated that the islands in the South China Sea have belonged to China “since ancient times” and unequivocally rejected the jurisdiction of the international tribunal. As Chinese censors work to rein in the most extreme online voices calling for war, it remains to be seen whether popular nationalism over the South China Sea will pose a net benefit or liability to the Chinese leadership.
The Chinese government’s bluster and patriotic propaganda can be effective at rallying popular support, as I note in a working paper with Allan Dafoe. In two national survey experiments we ran between October 2015 and March 2016, we found that Chinese Internet users or “netizens” approved of symbolic expressions of government resolve, even when tough action did not follow tough talk on China’s maritime and territorial disputes. And those netizens who were primed with reminders of China’s “national humiliation” by foreign powers between the 1840s and 1940s were also more likely to approve of the government’s current foreign policy performance.
But by fanning nationalist sentiment, the Chinese government has also amplified the domestic risks to the regime. In a parallel paper, we find that disapproval of the government increased when netizens were reminded that the United States had sent B-52 bombers through China’s air zone in the East China Sea and defied Chinese warnings against close-in reconnaissance flights, a pattern that escalated with the EP-3 collision and death of a Chinese fighter pilot in April 2001. By rolling out our survey in real time, we found that public approval dipped after each of the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation patrols through the South China Sea on Oct. 27, 2015, and Jan. 30, 2016. These patrols were both innocuous and legitimate to Washington and its allies, but Chinese state media denounced the “provocative attempts to infringe on China’s South China Sea sovereignty.”
In anticipation of the July 12 ruling, the Chinese government and media repeatedly rejected the tribunal’s jurisdiction, perhaps to ease the blow of an adverse ruling. Many of our survey respondents expected a hypothetical arbitration of China’s territorial disputes to favor Beijing, with roughly 60 percent expecting a total or partial victory, 20 percent expecting an even compromise, and 20 percent expecting a partial or total loss. (Perhaps due to this optimism, a majority of respondents supported international arbitration.)
How should we interpret Beijing’s signals and actions?
Since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the Chinese government has been effective at both stoking and quashing nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea, as I note in a recent book on China’s management of anti-foreign protests. The government has fanned patriotic sentiment through the media — but kept it online rather than in the streets.
Chinese police intervened when demonstrators tried to protest when the Philippine navy detained Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and repressed anti-Vietnamese demonstrations after Vietnamese protests killed several Chinese workers during the 2014 oil rig standoff. Protests by Vietnamese and Filipino activists have prompted Chinese scorn rather than countermeasures, as John Ciorciari and I write in a Security Studies article published last week.
The Chinese government is likely to suppress grass-roots expressions of nationalism when it wants freedom to maneuver and to signal reassurance. Police were reportedly stationed outside the Philippine Embassy in Beijing this week, and no protests materialized.
On WeChat, a popular social messaging service with more than 600 million users, Chinese state media have stressed that the best response is to ignore the verdict, while insisting that China is prepared to take whatever measures necessary to halt “any provocation whatsoever” by the United States and its allies. If we see Chinese protests in the coming days and weeks against the United States or its allies, we should take them seriously as a sign of China’s resolve.
Whatever actions the United States and its allies take in the wake of the ruling, a minimum of publicity and a clear legal rationale is likely the most effective course of action. The more we trumpet China’s defeat or loss of face, the more domestic pressure or temptation the Chinese government will feel to respond with more than bluster.