On Friday, Nov. 30, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell Dr. Jessica Chen Weiss presented on the rise of Chinese nationalism in a lecture titled, “Nationalism and Public Opinion in China’s Foreign Relation.” The event, sponsored by the Political Science Department and the Vassar College Chinese Students’ Community, was hosted by Professor and Chair of Political Science Fubing Su.
Weiss began with a photograph of a protest that occurred in 2012 in response to Japanese actions in the East China Sea. “This is pretty surprising of Chinese politics,” Weiss began, “that there would be large scale street demonstrations allowed to take place. The Chinese government, fearing a repeat of the demonstrations in 1999, remains extremely vigilant and proactive at cracking down on any sign of unrest, even potential unrest.” Weiss explained that over the past 30 years, there have been few successful protests relative to the number of repressed national protests. The Chinese government facilitated the few major protests. Of them, one was an anti-U.S. demonstration following the EP-3 incident of 2001, in which an American intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet.
Elaborating, Weiss explained that because of fears associated with unrest toward foreign powers and the out-of-hand economic costs of protests, the Chinese government is hesitant to allow them to take place: “Perhaps because of all the accumulated risks, China hasn’t allowed large scale protest to occur.”
Discussing how China manages to handle mass unrests in the Internet age, Weiss stated, “The government employs more than two million [people] to monitor online sentiments and unrest.” To anticipate and intercept possible protests, the government is constantly reacting to online activity. Weiss also mentioned the role of monitoring social media in preventing protests. According to Business Insider, “China holds people criminally liable for content posted in any group chat they initiate on messaging apps” (Business Insider, “China is building a vast civilian surveillance network — here are 10 ways it could be feeding its creepy ‘social credit system,’” 04.29.2018).
Noting that there haven’t been any large scale protests since 2012, Weiss asked, “Why is it we should care about nationalism and public opinion in China?” Weiss then provided historical context on the importance of public opinion, quoting past Chinese leaders who emphasized its role in the survival of the Chinese government. “First, public opinion informs domestic leadership,” Weiss explained. Public opinion in China communicates to the government the effect of its foreign and domestic policies. “Second, it informs foreigners in their view of China.” In other words, foreigners look to the public opinion to better understand China’s resolves and long term foreign policy.
Continuing, Weiss made an important distinction between nationalism and public opinion, stating, “Chinese nationalism isn’t particularly rising … There is less nationalism in Chinese youth.” She instead suggested that people are confusing China’s intrinsic nationalism with a new and more outspoken public voice: that is, confusing identity with public opinion.
Weiss then questioned the lack of available information on Chinese public opinion. She asked, “Can the Chinese government mold public opinion?” To answer this question, Weiss presented a set of five surveys conducted in China to research Chinese public opinion. The questions addressed foreign policy issues and demonstrated that the younger generations were more outspoken about their beliefs. Yet, in the research, about 30 percent of those surveyed answered that it is best not to speak out against one’s government.
Throughout the lecture, Weiss addressed the misconceptions that surveys clear up. With such limited knowledge on the public opinion of Chinese citizens, it is easy for foreign countries to create false narratives. One example she provided was the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea; according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “[The ADIZ is an] area of airspace… within which the ready identification, the location, and the control of aircraft are required in the interest of national security” (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “Counter-Coercion Series: East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone,” 06.13.2017). It is an area in which any unknown aircraft, if flying within that zone, has to identify itself and comply with Chinese authorities. However, U.S. military aircrafts frequently fly over that zone without complying and receive almost no response from the Chinese government. While this lack of governmental enforcement may point to a weakness in the zone, it can be seen as “benign authority.” These possible misconceptions would then influence how foreign relations are conducted.
During an interview following the lecture, Weiss contemplated her study of Chinese foreign relations. “I’ve always been interested in perception and misperception between the United States and China. Maybe because I’m half-Chinese,” she said. “When I was in China studying Chinese, the 2001 EP-3 incident happened, and I was pretty shocked by the differences between how my teachers viewed what had happened and what I was reading and hearing from the U.S. media.”
Reflecting on how this experience inspired her studies, Weiss said, “The idea that we can have such radically different perceptions about the same facts in the same time really worried me. I think it’s one of the major challenges for peace in the world for generations to come. I think it has to do with my personal interests and wanting to make the world a little bit safer.”
Weiss encouraged attendees to conduct and read similar studies in order to increase their understanding of one another as global citizens. “It’s important to understand Chinese domestic politics shaping China’s foreign policy,” Weiss concluded. “[A]s China becomes less and less constrained and as it rises the global hierarchy … We [in the U.S. and China] have to begin to understand ourselves mutually to avoid this creeping war footing.”