In recent years, “public opinion” in China has been accredited more and more often as a force driving China’s foreign policy. For example, analysts inside and outside China have attributed Beijing’s rising assertiveness in international relations in part to the need of the government to cater to rising nationalism at home. The logic of many of these analysts is that expressions of Chinese nationalism are becoming increasingly vocal and frequent, and that Beijing has to stand up against “hostile foreign forces” or it will lose legitimacy in the eyes of its own citizens. Ample cases of this dynamic have been identified, including the government’s hawkish response to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, controversies with Japan over the waters around the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, and, more recently, China’s “aggressive” behavior against Southeast Asian claimants to areas of the South China Sea. More often than ever, especially in private conversations, Chinese officials and scholars seem to play the public opinion card to justify externally unpopular foreign policy moves.
Such arguments seem reasonable at first glance. Public opinion, or, what is understood to be the will of the majority of the polity or at least a substantial element of it, can be a very powerful determinant of a country’s foreign policy. In democratic countries, governments have to respect public opinion: failure to do so can be very politically expensive. However, in a country like China, where the government has critical means to shape public opinion but in which the public has relatively limited means to express their political opinions, one must carefully examine the relationship between foreign policy and public opinion to determine the extent to which public opinion influences foreign policy decisions―or whether it is created or at least shaped by the government to advance a political or policy agenda.
On foreign policy issues, the Chinese public relies overwhelmingly on the official media for daily information, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government plays a central role in determining what information will be available to the public. The Propaganda Department of the CCP is the political center for ideological control and news censorship. It has almost absolute authority over what the public will read and see through its control of the sources of information, such as Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV). On current foreign affairs concerning China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Xinhua News Agency jointly decide the content and tone of news reports to make sure they are in line with China’s official positions. On important foreign policy issues, such as key international affairs or state visits by Chinese top leaders, domestic media outlets are required to use the official stories and lines from Xinhua. For example, in January 2011, the government allegedly required that “all media nationwide must use Xinhua’s reporting on the Egyptian riots. It is strictly forbidden to translate foreign media coverage.” In some extreme and sensitive cases, such as incidents in the South China Sea, even Xinhua is required to use reports that it receives directly from the State Council.
For most foreign policy issues, China’s existing foreign policy serves as a directive for media reports. For example, Chinese media reports on the domestic turbulence in Libya and Syria in 2011 rarely focuses on the governments’ authoritarian records, human rights violations, or corruption. Instead, following China’s foreign policy principles, Chinese media spent most volume on the negative aspects of domestic instability and the danger of foreign intervention. Chinese reporting on North Korea’s provocations in 2010 provide another example. To create a North Korea-friendly domestic public opinion and abiding by China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula, Chinese media reports on the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in March 2010 focused overwhelmingly on the “inconclusiveness” of the evidence and the findings of the international investigation into the sinking, and on other factors that did not indicate North Korean culpability. Reports on the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 referred to the event mostly as “an exchange of fire” between North and South Korea and blamed the escalation of tension on the U.S. and South Korea. Few, if any, held the North responsible for the shelling or South Korean civilian casualties. In these cases, media coverage is determined by the policy, and it is intended to shape public opinion.
Alternative sources of information such as internet and commercial media organizations are also under strict government control. Indeed, China’s internet environment remains one of the most restrictive in the world. Various government agencies, including the Ministry of Public Security, the State Council Information Office, and the newly established State Internet Information Office all carry responsibilities for regulating the internet in China. Although tech-savvy Chinese netizens often use proxy servers to browse websites outside the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” the government adapts quickly and has been effective in blocking mushrooming virtual private network (VPN) providers such as Witopia. (Of course, many internet users in China who bypass the Great Firewall are not seeking English-language media reports on foreign affairs, but perhaps more often social websites such as Facebook and YouTube.)
Commercial media are without exception subject to the censorship and boundaries set by the propaganda system, and although they often have a bit more latitude than the state media, they do not have total independence to decide their stories and tones. One example was the interview of President Obama by the liberal Southern Weekly during his visit to China in November 2009. Not only did the Propaganda Department scrutinize and edit the report, it also forced the Southern Weekly to move the story from the front page to the second page in its final publication. Furthermore, the Department issued a directive forbidding any domestic media to re-run the story in any form, efficiently controlling the spread of the story and its content.
The opinions of Chinese netizens are often identified by observers, including some serious researchers, as a key indicator of Chinese public opinion on foreign policies. However, like publications from the organized media, opinions expressed on the internet by individual citizens are also not free of government intervention and regulations. The first layer of control comes when the government issues directives to websites to monitor the content of posts, forums, blogs and micro-blogs and not to publish “problematic” information. In the second layer, the government’s “internet police force” under the Ministry of Public Security monitors the content of online posts accessible in China and constantly removes or blocks those that it deems dangerous or inappropriate. Then in the third layer, members of the “50 Cent Party,” netizens who are paid by the government to post pro-government opinions, are active on discussion sites to shape the discourse in ways that are favorable to the government.
Under this structure, most discussion on the internet in China is carefully screened, and much of it is pre-approved, by the government―including inflammatory comments and nationalistic criticisms about foreign policy issues. If it wished to, therefore, the government could shape and influence the direction of the internet content and netizens’ discussions to tone down nationalistic sentiment. The fact that it does not in many cases raises the question not about its ability, but its intentions.
One example was Beijing’s handling of an announcement of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in early 2010. Both decisions were conveyed to Beijing several months before they were announced, especially during President Obama’s visit to China in late 2009. Yet when they were officially announced, Beijing responded in a ferocious manner. Harsh official statements were applauded and echoed by an even more agitated public, which in its more extreme examples called for sanctions on American companies and even a military confrontation with the United States.
However, Beijing could have chosen a different path to deal with Obama’s decisions to prevent severe damage in the bilateral relationship. According to Alan Romberg, “The PRC government, knowing that arms sales would be made, and knowing that the Dalai Lama would be visiting the White House, could have voiced its principled objections while framing the issues for the public in less contentious ways. It could have underscored the support of the U.S. has given to cross-Strait reconciliation (sometimes even to Taiwan’s discomfort) and its repeated assertion that the U.S. has all along recognized Tibet as part of China.”
The fact that it did not revealed several things. Beijing had enjoyed its inflated sense of empowerment since the international financial crisis and didn’t necessarily feel the need for restraint when Washington challenged its core national interests on Taiwan and Tibet. And, it saw public opinion as a useful tool to show Washington how angry the Chinese people are and how severe the consequences could be. Beijing might have a point when saying it had to answer to the public sentiment at home, but such a sentiment was at least in part its own creation to begin with. Public opinion was more instrumental than original in this case.
Another example was Beijing’s handling of anti-Japan sentiment after the collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese vessels in September 2010, in a part of the East China Sea that is claimed by both China and Japan. After the Chinese captain was arrested and detained in Japan, Beijing substantially stepped up its retaliatory posture to press Tokyo into releasing the captain. From the suspension of ministerial-level talks to the suspension of rare earth exports to Japan, Beijing’s message was resolute and coercive. Subsequently, massive anti-Japan protests broke out in multiple cities in China. The anti-Japan public opinion reached a recent historical high, complementing and reinforcing the government’s hawkish positions. Several Chinese analysts commented that “our government had to respond or its domestic legitimacy would be challenged.”
However, the fact that the anti-Japan demonstrations were allowed to take place at all indicated at least a tacit blessing from the government, which saw them as a safety valve to release the accumulated nationalist anger. According to Shi Yinhong, a prominent scholar of international relations at Renmin University, “If the government very consciously opposed or didn’t want these demonstrations, if they resolutely didn’t want them, then there would be nothing.”
Even if protests are already under way or erupt spontaneously at the grass-roots level, the government certainly has effective means to manage them. In the similar but larger anti-Japan demonstrations in the spring of 2005, when the government felt the massive protests was getting out of control, it mobilized its resources to end the demonstrations. The Ministry of Public Security issued a statement on April 21 that forbade the public from participating in future demonstrations. (The statement was broadcast on the CCTV News Link). It also blocked anti-Japanese text-messages and online postings calling for more protests. The government’s action did not result in major backlash from the public and the anti-Japan sentiment was effectively put to a quiet end within a week.
In a country without free media, independent public opinion is certainly a myth. Since in China the information received by the general public―and the ensuing discussion about it―are decided, colored, and shaped by the authorities, it is extremely difficult to argue that the resulting public sentiment is not at least in part manufactured by the government.
As is the case with most governments, appealing to nationalism is an easy way to score points with the public. This may be especially true in China, where much of the society still carries a victim mentality left over from previous centuries of domination by foreign countries. Also, lacking the periodic reaffirmation of its mandate to rule―through elections, for example―the government always needs ways to reaffirm its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
This dynamic also can be effective externally: stirring up domestic public opinion helps Beijing to strengthen tough policy positions abroad and serves as leverage in negotiating concessions from foreign governments. Therefore, the causal relationship must be carefully examined in any assessment of public opinion as a force driving Chinese foreign policy.
 Peter Ford, “Why a nervous China aims to shield citizens from Egypt news,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2011,http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/0201/Why-a-nervous-China-aims-to-shield-citizens-from-Egypt-news; accessed December 13, 2011.
 “Zhongguo – Datan Renquan Meiti Ziyou – Aobama Dianming ‘Nanfang Zhoumo’ Zhuanfang,” Xingzhou Ribao (Sin Chew Daily), November 19, 2009, http://www.sinchew.com.my/node/139106; accessed December 13, 2011.
 Alan Romberg, “2010: The Winter of PRC Discontent,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 31 (Winter 2010), Hoover Institution,http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/CLM31AR.pdf; accessed December 10, 2011.
 Interview with Chinese analysts, Beijing, February, 2010.
 “The U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is a serious interference of China’s internal affairs… deeply hurt the feeling of Chinese people,” Deng Haijian, “Meiguo Duitai Junshou Cubao Shanghai Zhongguo Liyi”,Zhongguo Wang (China.com.cn), January 31, 2010,http://www.china.com.cn/news/comment/2010-01/31/content_19338083.htm; accessed December 13, 2011.
 Interviews with Chinese analysts, Beijing, October 2010.
 “China allows rowdy anti-Japanese protests,” Associate Press, October 18, 2010, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/10/18/china-allows-rowdy-anti-japanese-protests/; accessed December 13, 2011.
This article was originally written for Brookings, in December 2011.