Asia Program

April 2014

Policy Brief
Exploring Emerging Domestic Drivers of Chinese Foreign Policy
by Minxin Pei
Introduction Since 2010, the Chinese government has adopted a more assertive foreign policy. Signs of Beijing’s newly found assertiveness can be seen in numerous areas. The most obvious example is China’s willingness to escalate territorial disputes with its neighbors, particularly Japan and the Philippines. In other areas of Chinese diplomacy, Beijing has also become less restrained in exercising power and resorting to hardline measures. For instance, as a demonstration of its resolve to defend its sovereignty, the Chinese government has taken harsh punitive steps against European leaders for meeting with the Dalai Lama (in this particular case, Beijing has largely succeeded in getting its message across). Even the all-important Sino-U.S. relationship has not been immune to China’s growing assertiveness. Beijing has become much less tolerant of the continuation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and more insistent that Washington respect its “core interests.” It views U.S. military deployment in East Asia in general, and surveillance activities around China in particular, with undisguised antipathy. A self-evident — and persuasive — explanation of Chinese assertiveness is the rapid increase in Chinese power. Three decades of double-digit growth has vaulted China into the ranks of the world’s great powers. Assertiveness merely reflects Beijing’s desire to transform its power into geopolitical gains and diplomatic clout. However, there may be other explanations for recent changes in Chinese foreign policy behavior. The rise of a new leadership eager to establish its credentials as defenders of Chinese national honor is one likely factor. Another plausible reason is the impact of a more pluralistic society, rising nationalist sentiments, and public opinion. Diverging bureaucratic and institutional interests inside the Chinese state may also be driving the country’s foreign policy, as key state institutions (the economic bureaucracy, local governments, and state-owned enterprises) attempt to advocate policies that advance their parochial interests. This brief analyzes the emergence of some of the key domestic actors and forces that have made Chinese foreign policymaking, previously monopolized by a relatively small group of top leaders and actors, a more complicated and contentious process. Although

Summary: This brief analyzes the emergence of some of the key domestic actors and forces that have made Chinese foreign policymaking, previously monopolized by a relatively small group of top leaders and actors, a more complicated and contentious process. Although the author cautions that further evidence is needed to establish the extent and degree of the impact of these new drivers on Chinese foreign policy, he believes that a real understanding of how Chinese leaders make foreign policy decisions will not be possible without taking into account these contextual factors in the Chinese state and society.

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I caution that further evidence is needed to establish the extent and degree of the impact of these new drivers on Chinese foreign policy, I believe that a real understanding of how Chinese leaders make foreign policy decisions will not be possible without taking into account these contextual factors in the Chinese state and society. New Societal Actors and Public Opinion One of the most notable developments in China in recent years is the growing impact of public opinion on government policy. In the domestic realm, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) often has to change its policy and adjust tactics in response to strong public opinion. For instance, during the “airpoclypse” in Beijing in early 2013, public opinion forced the Chinese government to release more air pollution data. China’s recent healthcare reform was also a result of the pressure of public opinion. Even though the CCP maintains greater control over the flow of information on international affairs (thanks to the Great Fire Wall and the Chinese public’s relative lack of knowledge about the outside world), it must now contend with a revolutionary change in Chinese society when making key foreign policy decisions. As the result of the convergence of the rise of a highly competitive commercial media industry, strong nationalist sentiments (particularly among the younger generation in urban areas), the information revolution, and the popularity of social media, the Chinese government today no longer has the same capacity to frame foreign policy issues or manipulate public opinion that it once did. The emergence of multiple voices and perspectives in Chinese society on foreign policy can be traced to the commercialization of the Chinese media and the fierce competition among various players in this industry (print media, television, and online media) for audience and advertising revenue. Although nearly all media outlets (except for new Internet-based media) are owned by the state, most official media establishments also run tabloidstyle and online outlets that enjoy substantial editorial freedom. The most aggressive players in this market segment are media outlets based in Guangdong, such as the Nanfang Media Group (publisher of The Southern Weekend and The Southern Metropolitan Daily), The China Youth Daily, The Beijing News, Caijing, and Caixin Media (both privately owned). Although their in-depth investigative reporting and editorial freedom have had the greatest impact on the coverage of domestic news, these news outlets also frequently cover foreign policy issues with more objective and independent perspectives (either by using their own correspondents based overseas or interviewing analysts unaffiliated with China’s foreign affairs bureaucracy). A separate but concurrent development that has also had an immense effect on Chinese foreign policymaking is, without doubt, the rise of Chinese nationalism since the early 1990s. The initial driver of Chinese nationalism was the CCP’s “patriotic education” campaign, launched in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 to boost the regime’s legitimacy through appeals to Chinese nationalism. This campaign effectively reconstructed a powerful narrative that portrays China as a victim of Western (and Japanese) imperial aggression. With the rise of China, in particular its success in achieving three decades of rapid economic growth, a more triumphalist narrative — “the China model” — has fueled Chinese nationalism from the opposite direction. However incompatible these two narratives may be, their effects on Chinese public perception of how China is treated in the world and how Beijing handles its foreign policy are real and perhaps considerable. In most cases, growing nationalist sentiments are seen as a negative development in China’s relations with the West because such feelings are characteristically xenophobic, illiberal, arrogant and belligerent. The arrival of the information revolution and social media has created a brand new public arena where ordinary Chinese citizens can gain greater and faster access to infor-

One of the most notable developments in China in recent years is the growing impact of public opinion on government policy.

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mation on international affairs and where public opinion on Chinese foreign policy can be formed and amplified almost instantly. Reaching 700 million smartphone users, 618 million internet users, and 550 million weibo (Chinese Twitter) accounts as of 2013, the online and wireless communications industry has clearly emerged as the most influential player in disseminating news, influencing public opinion, and affecting the lenses through which Chinese officials see foreign policy. Although there are no empirical studies based on credible data or interviews with key officials, media reports and individual anecdotes (including the visit by former CCP general secretary Hu Jintao to the Strong Nation Forum, an online chat-room hosted by the People’s Daily and known for its nationalist biases) suggest that even senior Chinese officials can ill-afford to ignore public opinion when making key foreign policy decisions. New State-Affiliated Actors Within the Chinese state, in a development that parallels the growing diversity, autonomy, and pluralism in Chinese society, new institutional actors have begun to play roles that directly or indirectly affect Chinese foreign policy or external conduct. In particular, researchers have noticed the impact on Chinese foreign policymaking by Chinese businesses (primarily state-owned enterprises), local governments, and official research institutions. Such a development, if anything, is the inevitable result of changes that have occurred inside the Chinese state. In the past two decades, decentralization has allowed lowerlevel entities to develop extensive direct contact with their foreign counterparts and accumulate growing economic or institutional stakes in particular sectors, countries, and regions. To date, the most active and high-profile state-affiliated actors are giant state-owned enterprises, especially energy firms and construction companies. These companies have made large investments in the natural resource sectors or signed major contracts in Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia, areas where China used to have a relatively small economic footprint. The expansion of Chinese economic presence in these parts of the world influences Chinese foreign policy through several mechanisms. To the extent that this presence is perceived by Chinese leaders as vital to the country’s economic and national security, they are likely to favor policies that will protect these interests even though such policies may hurt China’s international image or damage its relations with the West. At the same time, Chinese state-affiliated actors with significant economic stakes abroad are motivated to lobby Beijing for policies or measures that would make their stakes more secure and valuable. We can find evidence in support of such hypotheses in China’s policy and behavior in Sudan and Iran (where Chinese investments in the energy sector were seen as the cause of Beijing’s positions that were in conflict with those of the West). China’s new diplomatic activism in Africa is another example of how Chinese foreign policy is being made to serve the interests of stateaffiliated economic interests.

Chinese foreign policy is being made to serve the interests of state-affiliated economic interests.
Limits of the Influence of New Actors on Chinese Foreign Policy Recognizing the emerging role of these new domestic drivers of Chinese foreign policy is a welcome step toward understanding a richer, more dynamic, and complex political and institutional environment in which Chinese leaders make decisions that affect the country’s relations with the outside world. However, there are clear limits in applying this perspective in understanding the forces driving Chinese foreign policy. The most serious limitation encountered in trying to connect these new drivers with the making of Chinese foreign policy is the general opacity of the process in Beijing. Secrecy continues to shroud the way Chinese leaders make foreign policy decisions. Chinese foreign policymakers almost never talk about or disclose details about the process. There is also a paucity of empirical evidence or scholarly research based on extended or systematic interviews with key players. Consequently, the only thing known is that Chinese foreign policy today is unavoidably affected by public opinion and pluralist societal and institutional


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interests. But beyond this general observation, we can offer, at best, only conjectures and analyses built on sketchy and fragmented evidence. Another serious limitation is imposed by the nature of the Chinese regime. While it is true that Chinese society has become far more diverse, autonomous, and dynamic, and decentralization of the state has made the Chinese political system more porous and less monolithic, the CCP has nevertheless managed to maintain a tightly controlled and centralized process in making foreign policy. Unlike the making of domestic policy, which requires the central government to bargain with a multitude of actors (local governments, various parts of the bureaucracy, and organized business interests), foreign policymaking continues to involve a relatively small number of players. In the absence of institutional checks and balance and power-sharing among competing political forces, the current Chinese political system simply has no regular, transparent, or established mechanisms through which public opinion, societal pressures, and local interests can affect and change the political calculations of foreign policymakers. The recent escalation of tensions in Sino-Japanese relations captures both the promise and limits of understanding Chinese foreign policy behavior through analyzing the role of new domestic drivers. It is easier to make a case that prior to Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in 2012, Beijing’s policy was largely reactive and significantly influenced by public opinion. Chinese reactions to Japan’s arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who crashed his vessel into a Japanese patrol boat in 2010 might be characterized as excessive, but they appeared to be mostly improvisations. In contrast, Beijing’s response to Tokyo’s decision to nationalize the disputed islands has been far more coherent, deliberate, and strategic. Popular antiJapanese sentiments, to the extent that the violent demonstrations and riots targeting Japanese-owned businesses in China were spontaneous and not officially orchestrated, might have generated some short-term political pressure on the new Chinese leadership. But the subsequent toughening of Chinese positions, which include sending official ships and aircraft to contest Japanese administrative control of the territorial waters around the islands and the establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), occurred when there was no visible display of popular antipathy toward Japan. Most importantly, the post-2012 Chinese policy toward Japan reflects not only substantive toughness, but a strategic coherence that is most likely the outcome of a tightly controlled and centralized policymaking process at the top.

About the Author
Minxin Pei is a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

About GMF’s Asia Program
The German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program addresses the economic, foreign policy, and security implications of Asia’s rise for the United States and Europe through research, publications, commentary, conferences, fellowships, study tours, and collaborations with other GMF programs. The program’s initiatives include the Stockholm China Forum, India Trilateral Forum, the Global Swing States Project, the Young Strategists Forum, Trilateral Forum Tokyo, Transatlantic Workshop on Pakistan, and high-level conversations at GMF’s major conferences. The program also publishes independent analysis by more than 15 in-house experts on Asia and externally commissioned papers looking at U.S. and European approaches to the Asia-Pacific and on deepening cooperation between democratic Asia and the West.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) strengthens transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, nonprofit organization through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has offices in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, Warsaw, and Tunis. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.


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