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Old Dominion University

Why should we study mass perception of external threat when we try to understand a countrys foreign behavior? According to some early studies (e.g., Cohen 1979; Cottam 1977; Herrmann 1988; Herrmann et al. 1997; Holsti 1996; Hurwitz and Pefey 1990; Knorr 1976; McGowan and Kegley 1980; Pefey and Hurwitz 1992), mass perception of threat can signicantly inuence a countrys foreign behavior in at least two important ways. One way is that the publics keen perception of external threat may be used by national leaders to mobilize defensive resources in dealing with the perceived threat (e.g., Cohen 1979; Knorr 1976). The other way is that a high degree of perceived threat can be a powerful emotional and political support for a hardline or coercive policy and universal stimulants of action against a perceived enemy (e.g., Herrmann et al. 1997; Hurwitz and Pefey 1990; Kegley and Wittkopf 1996; McGowan and Kegley 1980). Thus, a systematic analysis of public perception of threat is of no small importance (Cohen 1979, p. 3) in the understanding of any countrys foreign behavior. While many empirical studies of the public perception of external threat have been done in Western countries (e.g., Cohen 1979; Holsti 1996, chaps. 4 and 5; Hurwitz and Pefey 1990; Jervis 1976, 1989; Knorr 1976; McGowan and Kegley 1980; Richman 1979), such studies are scarce for China. To ll this gap, this research note is intended to shed some light on the current state and subjective determinants of Chinas public perception of external threat. The data used in this analysis come from a representative-sample survey conducted in Beijing in November 1999 (see app. A). In this study, I focus specically on threats perceived from the United States and Japan due to the saliency of these threats in the Chinese publics minds. The ndings from several earlier studies of public opinion on foreign policy in China clearly indicated that since the early 1990s these two countries had been considered the most threatening countries to China (e.g., Sun and Cui 1996; Yu 1998). In particular, the results from two opinion surveys conducted in Beijing in 1995 and 1997 showed that about 75 percent and 70 percent of
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the respondents considered the United States and Japan, respectively, either threatening or the most threatening countries, while only about 5 percent of the respondents placed other countries, such as Russia and India, in the same categories (see Yu 1998). Therefore, mass attitudes toward the United States and Japan are expected to be representative of the main trends of threat perception within the Chinese public, and hence they can offer a good test of hypothesized relationships between perceived external threat and subjective values and predispositions.

I. Perceived External Threat

How can one conceptualize perceived external threat? Many analysts of international perception have argued that the concept of perceived threat should include at least two major analytical elements: (1) the perceived adversarys intention, and (2) the perceived adversarys capacity to harm the perceiving party. The combination of both elements conveys a coherent impression of intimidation to the perceiving party (e.g., Jervis 1976, chap. 3, and 1989; Singer 1958). Following this conceptualization, and drawing on instruments used by Hurwitz and Pefey in their studies of perceived Soviet threat (see Hurwitz and Pefey 1990; Pefey and Hurwitz 1992),1 I fashioned two straightforward statements to measure the external threat perceived by the respondents (see table 1). Obviously, while statement 1 was designed to tap the perceived inclination of potential threatening countries, statement 2 was intended to measure the perceived capacity of those countries. Under each statement, I provided the two countriesthe United States and Japanfor respondents to consider (see table 1). Two additive indices were then formed, one for the perceived threat from the United States and the other for that from Japan. Each index was formed based on the values of the two items (or statements) for each country.2 These two indices are used as the dependent variables in the multivariate analyses that follow. The results from table 1 clearly indicate that an overwhelming majority of the respondents considered the United States and Japan as threats to China in terms of both intention and capability. Specically, about 75 percent of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the United States had hostile intention against China, while about 67 percent of the respondents either

1. For the actual questions used by these analysts to measure the American publics perception of the USSRs capacity and the inclination to expand its inuence (Pefey and Hurwitz 1992, p. 440), see Pefey and Hurwitz (1992, p. 457); and Hurwitz and Pefey (1990, p. 24). 2. The reliability coefcients (a) for the indices of perceived U.S. threat and perceived Japanese threat are .631 and .542, respectively. The correlation coefcient (r) of the two items for perceived U.S. threat is .467, while that for perceived Japanese threat is .375.



Table 1. Perceived Threats from the United States and Japan (Beijing, China, 1999)
Strongly Disagree (%) (1) Disagree (%) (2) Agree (%) (3) Strongly Agree (%) (4)

Country Statement 1: United States Japan Statement 2: United States Japan

Mean Score

Total (%)

4.7 (32) 5.9 (40) 1.8 (12) 1.8 (12)

20.9 (142) 26.7 (179) 9.2 (64) 20.7 (145)

54.0 (367) 52.9 (354) 69.4 (485) 62.7 (439)

20.3 (138) 13.9 (93) 15.2 (106) 7.3 (51)

2.85 2.74

100 (679) 100 (668) 100 (670) 100 (648)

3.01 2.81

Note.Total numbers (N) are in parentheses. Statement 1: Each of the countries listed below, in your view, has hostile intentions against our countrys vital interests and security. Statement 2: Each of the countries listed below, in your view, has the military and/or economic power that poses a real and immediate danger to our country:

agreed or strongly agreed that Japan had the same intention.3 Moreover, about 85 percent and 70 percent of the respondents believed, or strongly believed, the United States and Japan, respectively, possess military and/or economic power dangerous to China. Finally, the United States was perceived as a greater threat than Japan in terms of both intention and capacity. These results seemed to conrm the observations by many China watchers that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc, the U.S. clearly [ranked] as [the] number one threat to the security of the Peoples Republic (Whiting 1996, p. 607), and Japan was considered Chinas main rival in East Asia and threat to its national security (see, e.g., Glaser 1993; Lieberthal 1997; Nathan and Ross 1997, chap. 5; Paal 1997).

3. The wording of statement 1 in this survey is the same as that used in two earlier representativesample surveys conducted in Beijing in 1995 and 1997 (see Yu 1998, p. 23). In both of the early surveys, even when eight foreign countries (including the United States and Japan) were listed for the same statement, about 75 percent and 70 percent of respondents (which were about the same as or similar to the percentages in the sample) still considered the United States and Japan, respectively, either threatening or the most threatening countries, while only about 5 percent of the respondents placed other countries, such as Russia and India, in the same categories (Yu 1998, p. 26). This proves, at least in part, that the wording itself was not a factor causing such high percentages of respondents viewing the United States and Japan as threats in this survey. Moreover, the results from the survey were very much consistent with the observations by many China watchers (mentioned below) and hence were not very surprising.

Urban Chinese Perceptions of Foreign Threats


II. Subjective Values and Predispositions Inuencing the Threat Perception

Many classic studies of public opinion on foreign policy have found that individuals attitudes toward specic foreign countries and foreign policies are signicantly inuenced by their subjective values and predispositions (e.g., Cohen 1979; Holsti 1962, 1996; Hopple, Rossa, and Wilkenfeld 1980; Hurwitz, Pefey, and Seligson 1993; Jervis 1976; Mueller 1973; Pruitt 1965; Shamir and Arian 1994). According to these studies, threat perception is not only inuenced by objective factors but shaped by subjective predispositions that affect the interpretation of evidence (Pruitt 1965, p. 399). Based on this theory, in this study I focus on several subjective orientations, as follows, which I believe are important to explain individuals perception of external threats in urban China. Support for the political regime and for its ofcial ideology. From the sociopsychological perspective, analysts of the impact of social identity have argued and found that those who have stronger attachment to the norms and values of their own group or community are more likely to perceive that individuals or groups not conforming to these norms and values are threatening (e.g., Duckitt 1989; Gibson and Gouws 2000; Tajfel 1978). Along the same analytical line, some early studies of public foreign policy opinion argue that people who value the political system of their own country tend to have negative images of a country that symbolizes the antithesis of that political system. For example, in their study of American public perception of the former Soviet Union, Hurwitz and Pefey (1990, p. 8) argue that a strong preference for American institutions . . . should translate into a hostile view of a system such as the USSR which, for many, threatens all that is distinctly American.4 Drawing on these arguments and ndings, I extrapolate that those who support Chinas authoritarian regime and its ofcial ideology (i.e., MarxismLeninismMao Zedong thought and state-led nationalism) are more likely to feel threatened by the United States, which clearly represents the antithesis of Chinas political regime. Specically, it is the United States that has time and again openly criticized and imposed sanctions against China for the violation of human rights, for the suppression of political dissidents, and for its authoritarian political system, especially since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown (see, e.g., Shambaugh 1997; Song, Zhang, and Qiao 1996; Wan 1998). Yet I anticipate that this support for the political regime and ofcial ideology

4. By American institutions, Hurwitz and Peey (1990, p. 26) mean the American form of government in general, which is equivalent to the concept of political regime used in this study. Moreover, Hurwitz and his associates have found that more abstract idea elements, such as an affective bond for ones nation, inuence specic foreign policy attitudes (Hurwitz, Pefey, and Seligson 1993, pp. 250 and 253).



might not necessarily relate to the public perception of a threat from Japan.5 This is due to the fact that Japan has never been as openly critical of Chinas political system and ofcial ideology as have been the United States and most other Western countries. Further, Japan was the rst of the G-7 countries to end trade and nancial sanctions against the Communist regimes crackdown of the 1989 student democracy movement (e.g., Nathan and Ross 1997, chap. 5). To capture respondents affect about Chinas predominant political institutions and ofcial ideology, I used ve Likert-format items (see items A.15 in app. B). Three of these items (A.13) were designed to detect the respondents affect of the Communist regime and its institutions. One item (A.5) was intended to tap respondents feelings about the government-sanctioned ideological norms, and another item (A.4) was to probe the respondents assessment of human rights conditions, which not only related to the very nature of the Communist regime and ideology but also represented one of the most controversial issues between China and the West (see Lieberthal 1997, p. 266). Beliefs about Chinas role in the world. Beliefs and expectations about what kind of role China should play in regional and world affairs are part of a generic Chinese nationalism rooted in a sense of Chinese national identity that developed historically over a very long period, and that acquired its current characteristics in the course of the past century and a half (Levine 1995, p. 43). It has been argued that many Chinese people have tended to see their nation as a great country that naturally occupies a central position in world affairs and must be treated as a Great Power (Levine 1995, p. 43). This belief and expectation have been important sociopsychological factors inuencing how most Chinese judge potential or actual threats to their broadly dened national interests and security (e.g., Glaser 1993). It is the United States and Japan that have been considered as trying to contain China in the world and the region by making all kinds of troubles on such issues as the reunication of Taiwan with mainland China, the Diaoyu Islands, arms sales, and so on (see Glaser 1993; Nathan and Ross 1997, chaps. 4 and 5; Song, Zhang, and Qiao 1996; Zhao 1998). Many Chinese therefore are said to identify the United States and Japan with obstacles to a greater role that China deserves in Asia and the world (Song, Zhang, and Qiao 1996, pp. 6263). Thus, I hypothesize that the more people believe that China should play an important role in Asia and the world, the more likely they tend to regard the United States and Japan as serious threats to China. To measure the beliefs about the role China should play, I used two straightforward Likert-format statements (see items B.1 and B.2 in app. B). One item

5. Nonetheless, I believe that the respondents may consider Japan to be a salient threat due to other subjective factors that will be explained later in this article.

Urban Chinese Perceptions of Foreign Threats


(B.1) deals with Chinas role in Asia; the other item (B.2) is concerned with its role in the world. Condence in national capability. It has been argued that perception of threat is also a function of perceivers condence in their own national capability to defend national security and interests (e.g., Abolfathi 1980; Cohen 1979, chap. 2). Specically, as Abolfathi (1980, p. 117) puts it, the publics perceived external threat is likely to decrease as the public perception of the adequacy of national defense capability increases. Thus, I expect that those who believe China has the capability to defend its national interests and security tend to be less likely to feel seriously threatened by potential rivals. To measure the condence in national capability, I used two Likert-format items (see items C.1 and C.2 in app. B). One item (C.1) deals with respondents condence in the nations military and defense capability, while the other item (C.2) taps perceptions about the countrys economic power backing up its defense initiatives. Political interest. In early studies of both democratic and nondemocratic systems, it has been well documented that political attentiveness and awareness, presumably attributed to a persons interest in politics, are positively associated with support for the prevailing regimes norms and values (e.g., Chen, Zhong, and Hillard 1997; Geddes and Zaller 1989; Mueller 1973). As Geddes and Zaller (1989, p. 320) note, the central idea in these . . . studies is that exposure to political communicationswhether exposure is measured by . . . information about politics, or political involvementtends to promote support for the mainstream political norms embedded in those communications. Consequently, the greater the attachment to the mainstream [norms], the greater the degree of conformity of ones foreign policy opinions to ofcial policy (Gamson and Modigliani 1966, p. 189). The important implication of these studies for the analysis here is that the high degree of interest in and attention to major national and international issues and politics as a whole could more likely lead to support for government views of certain foreign countries as well as its policies toward those countries. This can be more applicable in the case of China, because all the mainstream news media (e.g., major national and local newspapers and TV and radio stations) and political communications are rmly controlled by the government. Thus, I expect that those who are most interested in national and international issues and politics in general are more likely to identify the United States and Japan with external threats to China because, since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, these two countries have often been portrayed (explicitly or implicitly) in mainstream media and publications as either actual or at least potential threats to the countrys political system, fundamental beliefs (more for the United States than for Japan), sovereignty, or/and security (see Christernsen 1999; Glaser 1993; Lieberthal 1997; Nathan and Ross 1997; Song, Zhang, and Qiao 1996; Whiting 1996; Zhao 1998). To measure the level of political interest, I asked respondents three questions (see items D.13

260 Table 2. Multivariate Models of Perceived Threats from the United States and Japan (Beijing, China, 1999)
Independent Variable Support for the regime and ofcial ideology Beliefs about national role in world affairs Condence in national capability Interest in national and international affairs Constant R2 Adjusted R2 N Perceived Threat from the United States Perceived Threat from Japan


.090** (.011) .193** (.050) .163* (.073) .150** (.041) 1.691** (.459) .231 .203 674

.039 (.034)

.232** (.056) .240** (.105) .118** (.056) 1.488** (.564) .270 .253 646

Note.Entries are unstandardized coefcients with standard errors in parentheses. * p ! .05. ** p ! .01.

in app. B) concerning their interest in and attentiveness to national affairs (D.1), international issues (D.2), and politics in general (D.3). In sum, I have hypothesized that those who are most supportive of the current political regime and its ofcial norms, those who are most interested in national and international affairs, those who expect China to play an important role in regional and world affairs, and those who are least condent in the countrys capability to defend its interests and security are more likely to perceive threats from either the United States or Japan. These hypothesized relationships are tested in the multivariate analyses that follow.

III. The Multivariate Analyses

Table 2 presents two multiple regression models for capturing the impacts of the subjective values and predispositions, specied above, on mass public

Urban Chinese Perceptions of Foreign Threats


perceptions of threats from the United States and Japan. Overall, the results from these two regression models are consistent with my earlier expectations.6 First of all, as I expected, a higher level of support for Chinas political regime is signicantly more likely to lead to the perception of threat from the United States, while such support exerted little independent impact on the perception of threat from Japan. It is worth noting that this nding accords with the nding from Hurwitz and Pefeys (1990) classical study of American public images of the former Soviet Union, which similarly found that the more a person supported the American form of government, the more likely he or she regarded the USSRwhich symbolized the most salient antithesis of such a form of governmentas threatening. Second, as table 2 shows, those who strongly believed that China was supposed to play an important role in world affairs were signicantly more likely to feel the threats from the United States and Japan. In other words, the more eager Chinese people are to see their country become a great power in the world, the more likely they are to look at the United States and Japan as the serious challengers to this goal. These ndings are consistent with the expectation explained early in this study. Third, in accordance with my earlier expectation, the respondents who were least certain about the adequacy of Chinas capabilities to defend its interests and security were more likely to feel threatened by the United States or Japan. These results conrmed the observation by some China analysts that Chinese political elites and ordinary people negatively related their evaluation of Chinas military and economic power (or relative power) to their assessment of external threat (e.g., Deng 1998; Glaser 1993; Whiting 1996; Zhao 1998). Also, the results seemed to be consistent with the argument from some early studies in the West that external threat perceptions decreased as national capability increased (e.g., Abolfathi 1980, p. 117). Finally, the ndings presented in table 2 clearly indicate that individuals interest in and attention to national/international affairs and politics as a whole exerted an independent impact on the perception of threats from the United States and Japan. That is, the most interested and attentive individuals were signicantly more likely to regard the United States or Japan as the most threatening countries. These ndings seem to conrm an important argument and nding that those who are most interested in and attentive to politics are more likely to agree with mainstream opinions and hence more likely to support ofcial foreign policy positions (e.g., Gamson and Modigliani 1966; Mueller 1973).

6. There could be possible reciprocal relationships between the perceived threats and the subjective values and predispositions. Regrettably, due to limited data, I was unable to test these potential reciprocal relationships.



IV. Implications
From the ndings presented above, I can draw at least two important implications. First of all, my ndings about the relationships between threat perception and such subjective values and predispositions as affect for the political regime, condence in national capability, and interest in politics coincide with the ndings from previous studies conducted in the Western setting. This can be understood to mean that the patterns of these relationships persist across cultural and political divides: whether in Western or other cultures and whether in democratic or nondemocratic systems (such as China), people tend to be inuenced very similarly by those subjective values and predispositions when considering external threats to their home countries. Second, one can also learn from the ndings that the opinions of those who very much care about political events, national and international, tend to coincide with the mainstream or ofcial positions on foreign policy issues and hence perceive the same external threats as those portrayed by the government. The important implication from these ndings seems to be that especially in such an authoritarian society as China, the government can relatively easily inuence or manipulate the publics perception of external threat through the state-controlled media and other political communication channels, as long as most of the public remains interested in national and international affairs and politics as a whole.

Appendix A Survey and Sample

This analysis is based on a public opinion survey conducted in Beijing in November 1999 in cooperation with the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) of Peoples University of China. The sample site has two salient features. First, as the capital of the country, Beijing is viewed as the political center in contemporary China. Signicant political eventssuch as the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 democracy movementstarted in Beijing. Second, Beijing is the cultural center of China and has the most developed educational system in the country. As a result, Beijing residents tend to be better informed about both national and international events and issues than are people elsewhere, especially those in remote and rural areas. The data for this study were obtained from a representative sample of 720 adults (including both ordinary people and local political elites) in the Beijing region. This probability sample was derived from a multistage sampling process. Eight urban districts (qu), including six regular-size districts and two large-size districts, were randomly chosen at the rst stage of sampling. From each of the six regular-size districts, four residential neighborhoods (juweihui) were randomly chosen; from each of the two large-size districts, six residential neighborhoods were randomly chosen at the second stage of sampling. This process yielded 36 residential neighborhoods. At the third stage, 20 households were randomly chosen from each of the 36 residential

Urban Chinese Perceptions of Foreign Threats


neighborhoods, producing a total of 720 households. At the nal stage, one individual was chosen randomly as the interviewee from each of the 720 households. Of the 720 questionnaires delivered (by eld interviewers), 684 were brought back. Thus, the response rate of the survey was 95 percent, which is very high by Western standards but quite similar to the response rates from other surveys conducted in China (see, e.g., Nathan and Shi 1993). The underlying demographic characteristics of the sample approximated those of the 1996 government census conducted in Beijing (see Beijing Municipal Statistical Bureau 1998). About equal numbers of men (50.8 percent) and women (49.2 percent) appeared in the sample. The respondents in the sample represented all age groups, ranging from 18 to 76 years of age (with the average age of 41). The education levels of the respondents ranged from elementary education (12 percent), middle-school education (26 percent), high-school education (47 percent), to college degree (15 percent). Overall, this sample yielded a sampling error of less than 4 percent. Care was taken to minimize linguistic misinterpretations and respondent effects. The original wording of the questionnaire (which was rst designed in the United States) was reviewed by the PORI to t the Chinese social and cultural context and to provide for a seamless translation from English to Chinese. College students of journalism and sociology, who had been trained in eld interviewing techniques by the project members before the actual survey was carried out, were employed as eld interviewers. Respondents were offered condentiality and encouraged to provide answers that best captured their true feelings. In general, circumstantial evidence suggests that Chinese respondents feel much freer to express their views in a public opinion survey such as ours than is typically assumed in the West (see Shi 1996; Tang and Parish 2000).7 This is partly because, since reform, the Chinese government has not effectively censored or regulated public opinion research, due to weakened party control at the grassroots level and the lack of any consistent ofcial rules governing survey research.

Appendix B Subjective Values and Predispositions Inuencing the Threat Perception

A. Support for the political regime and its ofcial ideology (Cronbachs a p .78):*, a 1. I am proud to live in socialist China. 2. Supporting our political system is my obligation. 3. I respect our governmental organs. 4. In our country citizens basic rights are well protected. 5. What I value is the same as what our government has promoted.
7. In his important article on survey research in China, e.g., Shi (1996, p. 218) suggests that there is usually no problem for researchers to ask about peoples political behavior, including their engagement in regime challenging political activities. Therefore, in every survey, even the 1990 one that was conducted in one of the most repressive periods of the PRC history (Shi 1996, p. 218), Shi and his Chinese collaborators asked some sensitive questions about respondents regime-challenging behaviors and attitudes.



B. Beliefs about Chinas national role in the world (Cronbachs a p .64; r p .47):a 1. I think China should play a very important role in Asian affairs. 2. I think China should play a very important role in world affairs. C. Condence in national capability (Cronbachs a p .54; r p .37):a 1. I believe that my country has military strength strong enough to protect our territories and defend our national interests. 2. I believe that my country has adequate economic strength to support any efforts in defending our nations security and interests. D. Political interest (Cronbachs a p .81):b 1. How interested are you in national affairs (examples provided)? 2. How much attention do you pay to major international issues (examples provided)? 3. Generally speaking, how interested are you in politics?
Note.Items in each of the categories above are combined to form an additive index that is used in the multivariate analyses in this study. * The percentages of the respondents who agreed or strongly agreed with the following ve items were 77.5 percent (item 1), 73.3 percent (item 2), 72.4 percent (item 3), 67.6 percent (item 4), and 65.1 percent (item 5). These gures are quite similar to those from some earlier studies in the former USSR in which similar items were used to measure regime support (see, e.g., Miller 1993). a Respondents were asked if they strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree, or strongly agree with the statements. b Respondents were asked to assess their levels of political interest by choosing one of the four answers: not at all, not very much, somewhat, and very much.

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