I am currently turning my dissertation into a book manuscript. My dissertation is entitled Rational Nationalism on the Rise: Chinese Public Opinion and Foreign Relations. Below is a brief summary of my research:
Domestic Chinese (PRC) nationalistic protest can be leveraged to change the behavior of other states. With a mix of grassroots initiation and government support, protest has escalated to violent actions particularly targeting historical grievances in bilateral relations with Japan, France, and the United States yet not arising with respect to Southeast Asian nations. Chinese historical grievances, encapsulated in the concept of a ‘century of humiliation’ and ‘wronged by empire,’ create a necessary but insufficient condition for nationalistic protest to arise. In addition, a low relative bilateral geopolitical position contributes to the emergence of nationalistic protest. The Chinese government response to these protests is not only based on being able to signal to the secondary state and concessions that can be leveraged. Domestic stability often comes as a cost of protest. In several modern cases, this rational nationalism goes beyond signals to actual international negotiating leverage. Outside states react to nationalistic protests particularly those against related businesses. These foreign audiences are more likely to push back against any requests from China for a change in their behavior or an apology when a strong domestic coalition constitutes a hardline on bilateral relations, which can deter protest.
In this dissertation, I will examine Chinese nationalism and foreign relations on three levels: first, when protest arises in response to an international incident; second, what explains Chinese official response to nationalism based on signaling and concerns of domestic stability; and, finally, why outside states change their behavior or policies in response to nationalistic protest. The study is rooted in the view that nationalism can both constrain and enable a state’s foreign policy pursuits. China’s new nationalism is a positive and a negative for Chinese foreign relations (Gries 2005). Necessarily, the study examines both the domestic emergence and international impact of Chinese nationalism. The research contributes to the increasing literature on the interplay of domestic and international affairs. While this analysis focuses on the “second image” (Waltz 1959) in international affairs, there is also a need to consider contending theories of international relations, particularly the debate between material versus non-material sources of motivation in state behavior. The debate is captured in the term “rational nationalism,” which contains the dialectic of a rational actor model and the constructivist perspective that ideational factors explain international behavior. In the Chinese context, previous studies have focused on nationalism as a method to signal other actors (Weiss 2014), a tenuous balance of state ideology and stability (Shirk 2008), and a domestic narrative of foreign oppression (Wang 2014). I offer ways to both critique and expand upon prior analyses of Chinese nationalism and foreign relations. In doing so, I develop a novel typology of nationalistic protest as government initiated, grassroots, and hybrid (grassroots then government opportunistic use), which can alter international affairs. Understanding how Chinese nationalism affects its foreign relations allows for a window into state motivations, particularly those of a rising power.
Methodologically, I employ comparative case analysis in a mixed-methods approach (Laitin 2002). I examine several cases including protest against Japan, the United States, and France, contrasted by non-emergence of protest against Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and India. In the process, I answer key questions: When does nationalistic protest materialize and escalate? What are the ways in which the Chinese government uses nationalism but also is beholden to domestic public opinion? What are the responses by other states to Chinese nationalistic upsurges? First, I explain when nationalism emerges in response to an international incident with nationalistic protest as a dependent variable. After that, I show through multiple cases how the Chinese government relationship with protest varies. Finally, by focusing on domestic coalitions in foreign audiences, I isolate the impact of Chinese rational nationalism on target countries.
I examine the early 20th century historical origins of Chinese nationalism in order to understand current cases where nationalism plays a major role in foreign relations. In doing so, I show whether Chinese nationalism has an impact on its foreign relations and the degree to which it enables China’s foreign policies. I find that the emergence of nationalistic protest in China depends on a combination of historical tensions and geopolitical ‘anxiety’ or low relative power. The origin of contemporary Chinese rational nationalism is both government managed and grassroots. Nationalistic protest emerges domestically in China when there is 1) sensitivity in historical relations; 2) Chinese geopolitical ‘anxiety’ in bilateral relations; and, to a lesser degree, 3) territorial tensions. I find that nationalism is not linked to economic forecasts as a ‘rally the troops’ effort during periods of economic decline nor to leadership change or potential periods of domestic instability. The emergence of protest is linked to historical memory and current geopolitics as relative power balance.
While the Chinese central government has the ability to manage nationalistic protest, several cases show limitations in either mobilizing or quelling protest. Emerging protest requires more than government initiation yet can be effectively stopped despite the need to make protest look uncontrollable to gain leverage. The complex government relationship with rational nationalism cannot be characterized as perfectly unilateral as leveraging protest requires an approach that allows nationalistic protest to at least appear to go beyond the government’s control. By examining the competing literature on Chinese censorship, I show how a permissive environment in social media is often created for mobilization of nationalistic protest despite contentions that there is no significant distinction between the types of mobilization that is censored (King et al 2013). Using an existing dataset of social media and censorship in China, I reveal permissive conditions are set for protest. However, limitations on that mobilization are only put into place by official sources after the protest has increased in scope. Furthermore, I look at the sequence of linguistic markers to demonstrate that there is variation on the primary mover in constructing the narrative of nationalistic protest. In some cases language goes from central authorities to the grassroots via official media, while in other cases grassroots movement linguistic markers come before official statements. Finally, a regional model in the emergence of protest further illuminates the concept that nationalistic protest exists in a government-grassroots duality.
Beyond the analysis of the emergence and government relationship with rational nationalism, I find that Chinese nationalism can change the behavior of foreign audiences, enabling Chinese foreign relations. Nationalism can be seen as a way for China to gain leverage in international affairs. The method for that leverage to alter the behavior of outside actors is such that the Chinese officials will, in the context of ongoing protest, approach the other side with a request for a behavior change or apology for the incident. The Chinese officials argue that the protest is outside their control and will likely continue without concessions further impacting foreign state economic interests. Using Putnam’s two-level game, I show that domestic actors in one country can impact the behavior of other states, both constraining and enabling the actions of their own country (Putnam 1988). The Chinese requests are less likely to be successful when the target country has a strong domestic coalition advocating for a hardline in bilateral relations. The level of protest and the type of request have less of an impact on outside audience response. In examining the emergence of, government relationship with, and foreign audience response to Chinese nationalistic protest, I offer a comprehensive study of the phenomenon. To truly understand the foreign relations of China, we must consider the significant role of rational nationalism.