Critical Issues Confronting China Summary–Can China Back Down? Crisis De-escalation in the Shadow of Popular Opposition

November 28, 2016

When Chinese negotiators claim that their hands are tied by domestic public opinion, are they really constrained, or is it merely a negotiation tactic to press their negotiating partner to make concessions? If it is the former, in the absence of free elections, how can the public really constrain their choices? And even if Chinese leaders do believe that the public can tie their hands, they may also want the option of backing down in a foreign confrontation. If so, what can they do to minimize the cost in domestic public opinion? Alastair Iain Johnston, Professor of China in World Affairs at the Harvard Government Department, addressed these questions with data analysis from a survey experiment conducted in China, in collaboration with Professor Kai Quek from the University of Hong Kong.

Johnston underlined, at the outset of his presentation, that this opinion survey was conducted on the assumption that Chinese leaders are constrained by public opinion. Plausible reasons for this constraint in the absence of free elections include fear of offering an excuse for intra-party rivals, fear of spontaneous break out of public demonstrations on the street, and a normative imperative that leaders should act in accordance with the wishes of the people. Johnston admitted that he is not convinced that the Chinese government at the highest level is constrained by public sentiment. Chinese leaders may be more susceptible to elites' opinions than to public opinions, or to President Xi Jinping's own preference, which could be more hawkish than public opinion.
Regardless how China gets into a conflict, if domestic public opinion does constrain the Chinese government, the survey results point out some ways for Chinese leaders to minimize negative opinion backlash if they intend to back down from a foreign confrontation. The survey experiment used as a scenario the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku Islands in Japanese – a particularly sensitive issue in Chinese public opinion. The scenario posited that the Japanese government, which currently exercises administrative control over the islands, decides to build structures on the islands. China’s leader publicly threatens to use force against Japan, but in the end decides to back down. One group of survey respondents – the control group – was then asked about their level of support for the leader under this baseline condition. In addition, five other groups of respondents were randomly assigned to different treatments – or reasons for the Chinese leader to back down and not follow through with force.

The five treatment scenarios are respectively China’s backing down after an offer of mediation from the United Nations, the most legitimate international organization in China’s view; China’s backing down in face of a U.S. threat of military involvement; China’s backing down after invoking China’s identity as a peace-loving people; China’s backing down by invoking the rationale of economic costs of stability and prosperity; China’s backing down militarily but imposing instead punishment on Japan through economic sanctions.

The survey findings show that all the treatments, except the threat of U.S. intervention, improved support for the Chinese leader over the baseline level of support. Increases in support were especially large with the threat to impose economic sanctions on Japan. The one treatment where support dropped compared to the baseline condition was backing down in the face of U.S. military threats, although this difference was not statistically significant.

The same sample population was also dissected into nativists and non-nativists, for which the litmus test is whether the respondent supports the government even if he/she thinks the government's decision is wrong, and dovish people and hawkish people, for which the litmus test is whether he/she would enhance social welfare at the cost of reducing military expenditures. Compared to the baseline level of support, nativists were much more likely to reduce support for the leader if he backed down in the face of U.S. threats. Not surprisingly, doves’ approval ratings for the leader were higher in all treatments compared to hawks. Hawks were also willing to punish leaders severely for backing down in the face of U.S. threats, whereas doves were not. A key question, then, is how representative non-nativists and doves are of the broader population. It turns out that these groups are not majorities in the sample, but not an insignificant minority either. Johnston was uncertain to what extent this sample resembles the Chinese population. In any case, the result is in line with the previous result before dissection, except that the loss of public opinion from China’s backing down in face of U.S. military threat becomes statistically significant.

The more non-nativists and dovish Chinese are politically mobilized, the less the cost of public opinion if China backs down from its military threat, and the more flexibility the Chinese government has with reneging on its threat. Then the question becomes how to mobilize these Chinese while de-mobilizing nativists and hawkish Chinese. Unfortunately, a high-profile U.S. military deterrence posture is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it will increase the economic costs of Chinese military actions, motivating non-nativists and dovish people, but on the other hand, it will leave the Chinese government less flexibility with backing down from its military threat due to the most significant loss of public opinion among all the five treatment scenarios. In addition, the findings suggest that if public opinion matters for China’s leaders, then high profile U.S. military threats may tie the leaders’ hands, making it harder for them to back down in a crisis over the disputed islands even if they might prefer to do so.