Anyone who’s spent any length of time following Western press coverage of China is familiar with the notion that China’s leaders are obligated to look tough in order to appease a rising nationalism. Much has been written about the online activities of aging Maoists, “angry youth” (fenqing), and the more recent phenomenon of self-named “little pinks” (xiaofenhong), young women who jump over the great firewall that blocks U.S. social media platforms in order to make their nationalist case on Facebook and Twitter. Western coverage frequently asserts that pressure from this rising nationalism has obliged the Chinese government to craft its foreign policy accordingly on issues ranging from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to managing testy ties with Japan.
But a new paper published earlier this month in the journal International Security by Alastair Iain Johnston, a professor of government at Harvard University, suggests reports of rising Chinese nationalism may be off the mark in several important ways. Since 1998, Johnston has worked with researchers at Peking University, a flagship university in Beijing, to produce a survey querying the city’s residents about their views on a variety of subjects, including foreign policy. The unique dataset that has resulted—called the Beijing Area Survey—has allowed Johnston and his collaborators to track the evolution of Beijingers’ views over time, broken down along a number of different categories, including age.
Since 2002, the survey has also asked questions designed to tease out respondents’ nationalism, including the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the following standard measures of nationalist sentiment: “Even if I could choose any other country in the world, I would prefer to be a citizen of China than any other country”; “In general, China is a better country than most others”; and “Everyone should support their government even when it is wrong.”
The paper’s headline result suggests that nationalism among Beijing’s residents has not increased over time.
The results not only show a drop in sentiment resembling nationalism, they strongly suggest that Chinese youth, at least those in China’s capital, are less nationalistic than their elders, belying notions of growing numbers of Internet-addled youngsters ready to take the government to task for any perceived failure to defend the national honor. In each instance of the survey since 2002, respondents born after 1978 were markedly less likely to “strongly agree” with any of the nationalist survey prompts than were their older peers. Perhaps most striking, by 2015, the proportion of older Chinese strongly agreeing to support their country “even when it is wrong” was more than twice the proportion of youth who felt that way.
The survey has also allowed researchers to monitor whether youth are becoming more nationalistic over time. Their results suggest the answer is no, at least for young people in Beijing—a surprising finding for a capital city whose reputation for political orthodoxy considerably outstrips that of more freewheeling, far-flung regions like the southern megacity of Guangzhou. To be sure, the survey registered a huge surge in nationalist sentiment in 2009, the year after Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, with more than 70 percent of young respondents saying they would prefer Chinese citizenship to any other (versus about half in 2007), and more than 60 percent saying China is a better country than most others (versus just over 30 percent in 2007). But this Olympics-induced spike seems to have been more aberration than norm; by 2015, barely a quarter of young respondents voiced strong agreement for nationalist statements, a precipitous drop from 2009, and below even 2007 levels.
The survey also tracks Beijingers’ feelings towards Japan, an erstwhile enemy still widely reviled in China, and the United States, a geopolitical rival. The queries probe the strength of positive and negative feelings towards both countries and measure how large respondents perceive difference between people in those countries and Chinese people to be. Despite any number of potentially inflammatory incidents during the period surveyed, including a fatal mid-air collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 and Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2012, responses to these questions have remained largely stable. The proportion of those who profess strongly negative views of the United States and Japan and perceive very large differences with China have changed very little since 2000.
Readers familiar with China are sure to note that the feelings of people in relatively well-educated, well-off Beijing may not reflect those elsewhere in such a vast and diverse country. Johnston’s paper grants this potential limitation, but points out that a nationwide survey performed by another academic in 2008 using very similar methodology obtained results almost identical to what Johnston and his collaborators found in Beijing.
The policy implications of these findings are potentially significant. The research suggests that China’s turn toward a harsher foreign policy under Xi has not been a response to rising domestic nationalism—Johnston’s paper notes that other possible causes of the shift, like the level of nationalist sentiment within China’s political elite, deserve more systematic study.
For the United States’ part, its policymakers’ concern about a new crop of stridently anti-American Chinese youth may be overblown. If anything, future Chinese leaders may emerge from a generation noticeably less nationalistic than those that produced Xi and his predecessors.