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Chinese civil society and foreign policy: is public opinion a meaningful constraint?

Published 10 May 2019
Lucy Nason

The influence of domestic politics on states’ international affairs is a recurring theme in international relations. But how applicable is this two-level model to contemporary China?

Since Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power at the Sixth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2016, reports have focused on the growing dominance of the Party over the Chinese bureaucracy and society. Last year, the CCP formally abolished term limits, allowing strongman Xi to rule indefinitely and comparisons between Xi and Mao Zedong have only increased with the addition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Receiving less international attention but just as significant are the CCP’s moves to strengthen its control over Chinese media, creating a single state-run ‘Voice of China’ managed by the Party’s ‘publicity department’. In February, the CCP launched a new propaganda platform on the video sharing app TikTok promoting Xi Jinping Thought, which is compulsory daily viewing for Party members. These changes follow the CCP’s 2013 Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, which demanded ‘unwavering adherence to the principle of the Party’s control of media’ and called on Party members to resist Western ideological influence.

These developments raise two questions with important ramifications for states seeking to manage relations with China: does China have a meaningful civil society and to what extent does domestic opinion constrain this non-democratic regime’s foreign policy options?

As social network Weibo’s recent backtrack on its ban of LGBTQ content suggests, China does have a civil society. Agitation from Chinese netizens has also been politically influential in the removal of corrupt officials, and in blocking regional developments harmful to the environment. Nonetheless, the development of ‘people power’ in China is severely limited. NGOs in China are required to register and work in alignment with official agencies, for example, the All-China Women’s Federation’s feminist activities are channelled into causes endorsed by the state such as promoting family values. The space for independent activism has contracted since 2013 according to Li Maizi, who was forced to abandon ‘street actions’ tackling more controversial issues such as domestic violence after an increase in arrests. Groups with the potential to criticise or compete with the CCP are countered via pressure from authorities, buying silence, or censorship. The Great Firewall of China that restricts internet freedom is infamous, however it may be more accurate, as Li Yonggang has suggested, to think of the CCP’s internet surveillance regime as akin to a water management system; complex, flexible, and regulatory. The CCP allows some grassroots activism to bubble away, preventing discontent from building and bursting out, but as soon as anything gets too threatening, it is blocked and shut down.

Can such bubbling away in the background truly constitute a constraint on foreign policy? Some scholars suggest that public opinion pressures China to take a more nationalistic posture. The CCP regime is characterised as brittle given that it is not democratically accountable, and its legitimacy relies instead upon being seen to promote China’s interests. The CCP has induced this state of affairs through its Patriotic Education Campaign and ritualistic celebration of National Humiliation Day, remembering China’s past impotence in the face of British and Japanese imperialism. Nationalism is therefore a safety valve for the regime and, so the argument goes, this demands aggressive foreign policy, limiting the CCP’s ability to back down in a dispute.

Perhaps this narrative holds true to some extent, but it is questionable whether the CCP is in any danger of losing control over foreign policy. According to James Reilly there is evidence that popular protest in 2012, including vandalism of Japanese businesses and demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy, following attempted Japanese nationalisation of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands encouraged China to rebuke Japan more sharply than it otherwise would have. However, after a week of protests, official media endorsed ‘levelheadedness’ and ‘sensible patriotism’ and the phrases ‘anti-Japan’ and ‘demonstrate’ were blocked on the Chinese internet, and tensions cooled. A similar cycle played out after Chinese netizen outrage at French criticism of China’s relationship with Tibet prior to the Beijing Olympics. Thus, it is doubtful that popular pressure to be assertive in foreign relations constrains Beijing’s diplomatic options. The allowance, even encouragement, of initial protests by the CCP may have been cathartic for the regime in allowing citizens to express frustration and in creating the perception of responsiveness to their concerns. It is also irrefutable that the CCP itself is interested in a prominent role for China in international affairs.

At a minimum, the CCP pays attention to netizens and protesters. This suggests that China will be more likely to take action on international issues that Chinese people care about but that are not immediately threatening to the party-state, such as encouraging global targets on climate change owing to domestic concerns over pollution.

What are the implications for Australia as we worry about unilateralism in Chinese foreign policy, including the deployment of missiles to the contested Spratly Islands? On the one hand, we should not overestimate the likelihood of the CCP collapsing due to popular discontent. However, at the same time, Australia should be serious in projecting – and proving – its message that the benefits of a rules-based order accrue to everyone.

Lucy Nason is currently a second year Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Sydney. She recently graduated from the University of Oxford with First Class Honours in History and Politics, where she focused on international relations and twentieth century political history. Having interned for a year at the United States Studies Centre, Lucy has a particular interest in US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region. She is also interested in diplomacy, public policy, and international law and has been a delegate to the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations and represented Australia at the Global Future Problem Solving international finals. Lucy is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.