“Thank you for your surveillance”

The meaning of protest in China

By Jennifer Dodgson and Ts’ang Chung-shu

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In recent years media across the globe have grown increasingly interested in nationalist demonstrations in China. These demonstrations are a semi-regular response to perceived slights or attacks by a foreign country (the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Japan’s purchase of three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private owner, the South Korean government’s decision to accept U.S. THAAD missile-defence batteries on its territory…), and have been known to descend into violence and looting. In the international press they are frequently cited as evidence of an increasingly nationalist turn in Chinese public opinion, worries that this rising nationalism may escape the control of the government, forcing the leadership to adopt a more aggressive stance in its international dealings.

This may seem like a reasonable assumption, but as survey research develops in China it has come to look increasingly shaky. We now know, for example that individuals with strong nationalist views make up a very small proportion not just of the overall population, but of those participating in nationalist demonstrations. Among students — generally the most active protesters — the majority participate for social reasons or because they believe that protesting will improve their political credentials, rather than as a result of strongly held beliefs. Moreover, while the foreign press tends to focus on nationalist demonstrations to the exclusion of all others, it is worth noting that they make up less than 0.1% of the total “mass incidents” that take place in China in any given year. The vast majority of demonstrations are, in fact, negotiating strategies adopted in local disputes over economic and quality-of-life issues: factory closures, eminent domain seizures, local government corruption…

Our suspicion was that foreign journalists have been misinterpreting Chinese nationalist protest based on their own experience and understanding of what protest means. In the US and Europe, there has traditionally been little difference between the implications of protests on foreign policy issues (Vietnam, Brexit…) and on economic issues (the miners’ strikes, the gilets jaunes…). The goal is to express dissatisfaction with official policy in such a way that the government will feel pressured to change it. Anecdote suggests that while this is true of economic protests in China, nationalist protests have a different set of goals, targets and meanings. Rather than being a strategy for expressing effective opposition the Chinese government’s position, the aim is rather to express personal emotions, intimidate foreign powers via a display of fighting spirit and (in some cases) to strengthen the government’s negotiating position. As such, these protests — assuming that they are correctly understood by those in power are unlikely to result in a more aggressive foreign policy. The government will not suffer a significant drop in popularity or perceived legitimacy if it does not adopt a more hard-line policy, simply because this is not among the primary goals of the protests.

Confirming or invalidating this hypothesis may seem, on the face of it, difficult. Participants in Chinese protests are generally reluctant to talk — and to talk honestly — to researchers. However, protest is a semiotic act. In order to function, it must carry shared meanings that are understood by all members of a given society. So, for example, while a U.S. citizen selected at random and interviewed about the Iraq War demonstrations may not have participanted in the demonstrations himself — and may even disagree intensely with the protesters’ goals — but he will nevertheless understand that meaning and goal of the protests, and be able to explain this to the researchers.

With this in mind, we recruited 507 Chinese citizens to participate in an open-ended survey, discussing the meanings, targets and implications of two protests: a nationwide anti-Japanese demonstration over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and a protest about a change in urban zoning laws. Participants were then asked three questions about each article:

1. How would you analyse the feelings of the protesters in essay A/B? Why? (Please write at least 25 characters.)

2. What was the goal of protesters in Article A/B? From your point of view, whom do you think the protest was directed towards? What do you think their ultimate aim is, and what is their key message? (For example, are they directing their protest towards national politicians, the media, foreign observers etc.? Please give your opinion in around 50 characters.)

3. Imagine that you are the official responsible for this problem. How would you respond to the protesters? (Please write at least 50 characters.)

While the original data is available online via the National University of Singapore, and is both entertaining and informative in its unprocessed state, we have summarised the main points below, and translated a selection of comments as examples of general trends. Further methodological details are provided in Annex I below.

“The people made the government, and we can unmake it too”: interpreting economic protests

Respondents interpreted the economic protests more or less as you would expect: as a negotiating strategy used by individuals driven to extremes in an attempt to change government policy.

88.89% of the participants identified either “government” or “local authorities” as the targets of the protests, and the decision to protest was seen as strategic rather than expressive: 74.81% of respondents stated that the protesters were aiming to have the policy revoked, changed or delayed, or to obtain compensation such that their individual losses would be cancelled out.

“The protesters’ goal is that they hope the government will help to solve this problem, solve their housing problems, that it’ll be able to give them some help. They’re protesting against the new policy — the government should be able to solve existing problems properly rather than just making policies however they feel like.”

“It seems that the government has damaged the interests of thousands of property owners! They’re fighting for their rights. Faced with the government, they have no choice but to demonstrate like this!”

The competition between different economic interests were viewed in an entirely un-ideological manner. This should be contrasted with the U.S. and Europe, where it is relatively common for protests on economic issues to be joined by individuals whose own interests are not at stake but who wish to express an ideological opinion. While progressive and conservative political factions do exist in contemporary China, none of the respondents suggested that the protesters may be making a general political point, whether conservative or progressive, and only six considered that the protests and their results may have implications for the wider political and economic environment. (Though five participants accused the protesters of being property speculators, an indicator of conservative left-wing views on the part of the respondents.)1

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Even when asked specifically about the protesters’ feelings, far more respondents mentioned interests than mentioned emotions.

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When emotions were mentioned, they were generally seen as being a reasonable response to an intolerable situation.

“This is an extremely angry protest because people’s direct economic interests are affected, so the responses of the people whose interests have been damaged will be relatively intense.”

“Naturally they’re furious because this has harmed their interests. When a person’s interests have suffered, this will inevitably lead to them into a state of mind where they can’t control themselves.”

This was linked to the idea that the government’s central responsibility is to ensure a given level of economic prosperity for citizens:

“Even though these are extreme measures, it’s still understandable, because the government’s basic role is to be a tool for protecting the interests of the people. They didn’t inform the masses about this in advance, and rather than communicating they just arbitrarily came up with this, which harms the interests of the people, so the protest is understandable.”

“It’s only natural to be like this when your basic human needs are at stake. The people are the foundation of the state, and the state should think of them first whenever it begins anything. This way it can solve fundamental problems and resolve contradictions.”

“They are marching to protest against the government. Their ultimate goal is to let the government understand the people’s opinion. Property policies can’t be changed lightly — they should be people-oriented, so that ordinary people can live in comfort! You can’t impose a one-size fits all solution.”

Some respondents went further and stated explicitly that unpopular policies such as the one being protested damage or extinguish the government’s legitimacy:

“Their aim is to demonstrate en masse against an unreasonable government policy. The protest is directed against the government policy. The ultimate goal is to use the voice of the masses to let the government know that the policy is unreasonable, timely amendments are necessary. They aim to express the will of the people, that this policy is unreasonable, the masses do not accept it and it must be rectified or there will be anarchy.”

“The goal of the protesters is to protect their own interests. They hope that the properties they’ve bought can remain dual-use. Their ultimate aim is to protect their rights and interests. The people made the government and we can unmake it too.”

In asking participants to imagine themselves in the role of the official responsible for this issue, we deliberately left the amount of leeway enjoyed by the imaginary civil servant vague, in order to avoid constraining participants’ responses. In the end, however, the majority of respondents assumed a level of responsibility that would permit them, in their official persona, to make concessions to the protesters, and 63.91% of them did so.

“To appease property owners who have suffered significant losses, I would promise to return to the original policy within a set time period, moreover there would be appropriate compensation for owners who have suffered losses and I would guarantee that in future this mistake will never happen again.”

“I would elevate the issue to a higher level of government, and get them to revise the new policy to make it reasonable and make sure that no one loses any money. We hope everyone will calm down as we are genuinely listening.”

The implication in the vast majority of cases was that the respondents were of the opinion that the protesters would not be satisfied with anything less than government backtracking. While it can be argued that it is much easier to give way on a political issue when filling in an online survey than if one is really the official responsible for the problem, this does not seem to have been the case here. As will be discussed in detail below, respondents showed clear signs of reasoning differently when placed in the position of a government official, making a genuine attempt to speak and behave in ways considered appropriate for a civil servant, and considering the various pressures to which he or she would be subjected. Very few appeared to be making excessively generous concessions out of personal sympathy or in order to finish the questionnaire more quickly.

While these responses all imply a give-and-take relationship between citizens and government on this issue, a certain number of respondents also referred explicitly to a negotiation process:

“If I was the official responsible for this problem, the first thing would certainly be to preserve good order — we can’t end up with riots and that sort of problem; we have to solve this kind of issue in a peaceful way. Then tell the protesters that we fully understand their demands, and at the same time explain the causes of the new policy properly. The best thing would be to be able to negotiate with the protesters’ representatives.”

“First I would calm down the protesters, then I would formulate concrete plans for the parties to sit down and negotiate so that the protesters will feel that we are acting in good faith.”

“I’d appease the public. I’d explain the policy in order to gain their understanding, assuage the feelings of the masses, then hold democratic meetings, listen to public opinion and the public’s ideas to formulate a compensation policy, and finally to negotiate with the relevant officials and the people’s representatives to come up with an effective form compensation or reconciliation that everyone can accept.”

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Despite the overwhelming sympathy for the protesters, some respondents also expressed sympathy for the officials dealing with the issue, and the pressures from above and below to which they are subject:

“How can you respond to this? It’s tough coming out to respond to the people in defence of such a pig-headed policy. Even if you don’t get egged by the crowds, you’ll get insulted on the internet. If it was me, I’d just go through the regular bureaucrat routine — normally they just tell everyone ‘We’ve received your demands, calm down, the government will resolve this, please go home first of all, we’ll study this and give you a satisfactory answer…’”

Some respondents also acknowledged the fact that policies enacted for the greater good will frequently disadvantage a minority of the population:

“I would say to the protesters: ‘This policy change has brought you inconvenience or even loss, and for this I express deep regret. However, for the orderly future development of the city and the country we have to implement this policy. I hope you understand.’”

“In reality, this issue isn’t very clear to me, but as an official one has to pay attention to the overall situation and take the populace into consideration, but you also need to retain a certain credibility. If this decision turns out to have been the correct one after having been subjected to checks, then we should try to reconcile the masses to it, offering appropriate compensation.”

This utilitarian viewpoint was reflected in another idea mentioned by several respondents: that government should aim for the greatest good for the greatest number, but not shrink from employing force against those perceived to threaten this outcome.

“Listen to the protesters; if they’re justified we’ll adopt their suggestions. Everyone should consult with each other and find a solution for this affair. It’s unreasonable, we need more explanations. A policy can’t benefit everyone, it just has to be reasonable. But if people stir up trouble without a good reason then the gloves are off.”

“I would tell them to protest, don’t smash and grab, don’t affect the traffic, if you’re tired be sure to have a rest, if you’re hungry eat something, if you’re thirsty have a drink. If some people take advantage of the disturbance to cause trouble, don’t follow them blindly and make a scene, just tell the police. If I had the power I would think about an economic solution.”

Within this framework, the people’s role in this process lies in the provision of oversight, being one of correction rather than direction. However, this was not seen as being a conflictual relationship, but rather one of mutual assistance.

“Should listen to the representatives of the masses and thank the people for their surveillance of the work of the government. Explain the reasons behind the introduction of the policy. Apologise for the inconvenience caused. Propose a solution — whether amending the housing policy, offering compensation, follow-up work and so on.”

“First we should understand and apologise to the owners who have lost their homes, explain the new revised policy appropriately, and propose ways to make up for the victims’ losses. As well as taking these steps we should request that everyone supervise our work.”

“Chinese people aren’t like they used to be, don’t mess with us”: interpreting nationalist protests

In this case, relatively few participants saw the demonstration as an attempt to extract a concrete policy response from the Chinese government. Instead, the most frequently-cited targets of the protests were Japanese: government, citizens, media, militarists, business and the country in general.

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In contrast with the economic protests described above, the expression of intense emotions was not only seen as the driving force behind the protests, but as a goal in itself. A large proportion (42.65%) of the respondents saw emotional expression as being the central aim of the protests:

“The goal of the protesters is to express their emotions. Because of the war, most Chinese people have strong conflictual emotions; they have irrational feelings. And this kind of protest is necessary. We can’t forget history; it’s necessary to use various means to remind modern people about it.”

“The surface goal is to recover the Diaoyu Islands. The target is the Japanese government. Most of them are angry young people, with no proper understanding of their behaviour. Most of the protesters have no clear political claims or demands, this is more a product of their emotional impulses.”

This expression of anger was often linked to a desire to intimidate or instill a sense of guilt on the Japanese side.

“If you analyse the text, the goal of the protesters is to get the Japanese out of the Diaoyu Islands. The target is the Japanese government. The message that they want to send is more or less ‘Chinese people aren’t like they used to be, don’t mess with us’.”

“Goal: to express the aspirations of the people and to force the Japanese to leave the islands by protesting. Target: the Japanese people stationed in the Diaoyu Islands. The Diaoyu Islands have belonged to China since ancient times and there are calendars, maps and related materials to prove it. Despite this, Japan has paid no respect to diplomatic relations, history, or the relevant laws and regulations, and just rashly invaded the territory of other nations. It’s extremely irresponsible both to their own and to other countries to engage in open provocations in a time of peace; they should be grateful that they’re living in peace now and not throw that away for a tiny island.”

Some respondents saw the protests as having the potential to affect international political outcomes:

“[The protesters are] full of patriotic passion!! They want to give up their own time to strengthen the government’s foreign negotiating position!!”

The majority of those who expressed an opinion were more sceptical, however:

“They’re fighting over historical gripes, to exterminate the bad guys. They believe they’re supporting the country, but if they overstep the bounds then it’ll only make the issue more embarrassing. The state will be passive and the world will look down on us, it’ll bode no good for the future. Their behaviour can also implicate their loved ones.”

“The situation with the Diaoyu Islands has caused a serious cooling of the relationship between Japan and China, but in reality Sino-Japanese economic relations have already reached a state of interdependence, so for Chinese people learning how to get along with Japan is very important.”

“Mainly [they want] to express their own patriotism and indignation at the conduct of the Japanese. Regarding problems between countries, as an ordinary citizen — a regular Joe — in these kinds of affairs one doesn’t have much power, and one can’t lead policy-makers’ opinions. One can only express one’s own dissatisfaction and act out one’s own patriotic feelings.”

Interestingly, for many respondents, the rightness or wrongness of the protesters was not judged based upon their goals or opinions but upon the legitimacy of the means used to express them.

“The protesters’ emotions are patriotic, but there are different ways of expressing love for one’s country, and some are better than others.”

“They are very patriotic; it’s just that their means of expressing themselves is rather radical. They could take a more rational approach to protesting against Japan’s occupation of Chinese territory.”

Among our respondents, intense (激烈, jilie), radical (激进, jijin), agitated (激动, jidong), and extreme (偏激, pianji) means of self-expression, were generally contrasted with reason (理智, lizhi), rationality (理性, lixing) and reasonableness (合理, heli). For many, a reasonable position was necessarily one that was expressed moderately, while immoderate expression connoted unreasonableness of position — an interesting example of the assimilation of function and essence.

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Similarly, it was notable how many participants framed their response in terms of “rational patriotism” (理性爱国主义, lixing aiguozhuyi). This idea has been emphasised by both the state and the media since the mid-2000s, being intended to encourage citizens to express patriotic sentiments in non-disruptive, state-approved ways. As before, function and essence are largely conflated in the concept, and the antonym for rational patriotism is not “irrational patriotism” but “pseudo-patriotism” (伪爱国主义, wei-aiguozhuyi).

Rational patriotism is often associated with the argument that the best way to demonstrate patriotism and intimidate China’s enemies is by working hard to build a prosperous economy, an idea that was reflected in many of the responses.

“It’s a kind of passionate patriotic performance. There are many kinds of patriotism, but for ordinary people there’s only making the country strong, not this sort of rubbish. Being patriotic means being dedicated, getting on with your work. As for this sort of fighting, smashing and robbing, it’s not reasonable behaviour.”

“These are anti-Japanese protests to express the views of the masses, reflecting the voice of the people. This activity is a rational expression of public opinion. However, it shouldn’t evolve into the destruction of one’s own compatriots’ property. Even if some people have bought Japanese goods, once the purchase is complete then it’s their property and should be protected. Boycott Japanese goods and think of ways to make products that are better than those made by the Japanese — this is our powerful weapon in our resistance against imperialism. Japan always complies with those countries that know how to control them, not those who behave like petulant little bitches.”

“I think the protesters are not calm. Protesting and smashing and robbing isn’t true patriotism. It can’t make China rich and powerful, it only injures your own compatriots’ interests.”

However, while the rational patriotism concept has been adopted by citizens, it has also been appropriated, with different people assigning to it meanings unintended by its originators. Thus, respondents were divided as to whether or not some or all of the protesters’ actions constituted rational patriotism.

“Regarding their patriotic mind-set, I believe there’s a need for rational patriotism, because you can’t use violence to stop violence. This can’t resolve the underlying problem, it can only make it worse, and it’ll be impossible to bring an end to it.”

“Essentially, they’re patriotic and very rational. The state gave permission for the marches, and they didn’t behave excessively, they just used parades to express their views.”

While some saw violent protest as being in violation of the rational patriotic ideal, others saw defending the national territory (or at least showing one’s willingness to do so) as a civic duty, with several mentioning the idea that domestic protests have the power to strengthen the government’s negotiating position abroad:

“[The protesters are] unhappy and unsatisfied because the Diaoyu Islands are Chinese territory, but now other countries such as Japan want to occupy them, which is just complete nonsense. As a Chinese citizen, the protection of the national territory is everyone’s responsibility.”

“They hope by carrying out concrete actions to provide backing for the government, to provide another bargaining chip for the government in its negotiations with the international community and particularly with Japan. The target of the protest is actually the Japanese government. They hope that the government will be able to use these mass protests to put pressure on Japan and gain legitimacy for its position in its diplomatic talks.”

“This is a rational protest against Japan’s actions in the Diaoyu Islands, getting Japan to wake up and pay attention. It’s not convenient for the state do too much on this issue itself, so the hot-blooded masses are doing it.”

Others took a slightly different perspective, and blamed the government itself for stirring up popular feeling for its own ends, attributing citizens’ protests on this issue to anti-Japanese propaganda broadcast by the state.

“They’re protesting against Japan, to recover the Diaoyu Islands. If Chinese people are engaging in collective action on an issue, it’s because the government requires it for its policy. In fact, while the government’s maintaining the steady drip of propaganda, the whole country will remain in an anti-Japanese mood, making it easy to stir up ethnic resentment against the Japanese. If the government hadn’t put a stop to it last time, the anti-Japanese mood would already have got out of control. From these kind of events, you can see that it’s easy to stir up anti-Japanese sentiments among the Chinese people. Whether or not it actually happens just depends on whether the government benefits from the trouble they create. That’s all.”

“The protesters in the article are relatively extreme. They lack comprehension of history and politics, they’re just following blindly. There are a lot of this sort of radical people about these days. As for the cause, part of it is down to ethnic hatred, the other part is attributable to the government’s educational philosophy, and it’s also definitely related to the government’s ‘opinion guidance’. Particularly the educational aspect.”

A significant number of respondents saw both the Senkaku/Diaoyu question and the handling of the protests as primarily a reputation-management problem, rather than a strategic issue. Some saw the protesters as defending Chinese honour internationally:

“Protesters have strong natural emotions, they see themselves as part of the Chinese people and this gives them a strong sense of honour. The protesters have always maintained that they are protecting the dignity of the nation, and they aren’t the ‘mob’ described by the outside world.”

Others, however, took the opposite position, criticising the protesters for making China look bad abroad:

“(…) Patriotism is a good thing, but think about it — this sort of behaviour won’t win approval from others. Is this sort of thing likely to get the Diaoyu Islands back or lead Japan to make concessions? They will see the news and just smile contemptuously at us for taking out our anger on our fellow citizens. This sort of struggle is pointless, we should unite and stand together rationally to come up with a real way to get the other side make concessions.”

In sharp contrast with the responses to the economic/quality-of-life case, when asked to imagine themselves as the civil servants in charge of the problem, relatively few respondents suggested changing national policy in response to the demonstrations. The vast majority suggested purely placatory responses, implying that they believed that such a response would be broadly acceptable to the demonstrators (or at least insufficiently objectionable as to damage the government’s legitimacy — in contrast with the economic protest case above).

“Hello everybody. I understand your ongoing concern about the Diaoyu Islands, and I can empathise with your love for the Motherland. On this special day, with everyone gathered here, I hope everyone’s expressing patriotism together. At the same time, bear in mind the relevant laws and regulations of the nation, restrain your words and deeds, and do not disrupt social order or violate the law.”

“I believe this issue will eventually be resolved, it’s only a matter of time. Now we are advocating for peace, but we firmly believe that the Diaoyu Islands are China’s. Please trust in the government, we will definitely solve this problem.”

“Support the protests to a certain extent, but avoiding the escalation of the situation. If we do not support them we will be going against the will of the people, which will cause even worse consequences. But at the same time be sure to maintain law and order.”

“The government will handle this matter. The masses don’t understand the truth of the issue. You have all witnessed China’s gradual progress towards strength and prosperity since reform and opening up, thanks to the hard work of the government and the people. Please believe that the government is capable of handling this matter well.”

Others announced openly that they — in their civil servant persona — did not intend to allow the protests to influence them:

“If I were the official responsible for this issue, I would encourage the protesters to show rational patriotism and to remain calm on issues relating to the national territory. The masses should not be censured too strictly for expressing their opinions on the Diaoyu Islands, but the final policy decision is down to the government. Support the state’s way of handling this.”

“I would not respond, just let the protesters go on protesting; treat them coldly.”

Others went even further, threatening a law-enforcement response to the protests:

“There’s nothing to respond to. First of all, we must ensure that the protests are normal and orderly, so they can’t be allowed to have an effect on the normal functioning of society. Then we should try to understand the protesters’ demands. If they’re reasonable we can take them on board and report them to the higher authorities. If they’re not reasonable, then the protesters can be advised on their conduct, to prevent them from committing crimes.”

“I would have the media placate the people who are protesting sincerely, calling on everyone to look at the issue rationally, and the government will safeguard the interests of the country. At the same time, those who smashed things and looted will be severely punished, to serve as an example and prevent such things from happening again in future.”

“First of all, express an understanding of the protests, and show that we’ve understood their patriotic enthusiasm. Secondly, explain that extreme behaviour is inappropriate during acts of protest. This kind of behaviour has a negative effect on normal life and economic production, causes damage to others’ property and constitutes illegal conduct. Finally, announce that the government will provide relevant education and guidance to the protesters.”

In contrast with this, others endorsed the idea of tacit collaboration between protesters and government:

“Firstly, I would like to thank the people for their support of the government’s work, and praise their patriotic enthusiasm. We hope that everyone will remain calm and keep their protests within the legal limits and not undermine public security…”

“If I was a Chinese government official there would be no need for me to respond on this issue. The national sentiment is beneficial for Chinese dominance…”

Others referred back to the idea that working hard to improve the national economy is the best way for the protesters to achieve their goals:

“I would tell the protesters, ‘Instead of wasting time here, go back to work/study hard. Whether or not a country is strong doesn’t depend on how loud it shouts, but on how powerful it is. As citizens, what we can do for our country is work well at our own jobs, and if everyone does this then the economy will get stronger and we won’t need to protest, because no one will dare to bully us (look at the U.S. example)’ .”

“You are good people; the motherland needs people like you — you are the pride of the motherland. But did you know that our average economic level now is the average economic level of Japan in the 1990s? Behaving like this you can cause a lot of trouble to the motherland. We’re still developing, they’re already developed.”

“We call on everyone to express their protests rationally, and use practical actions to express their patriotism. For example, by working hard, doing their jobs, buying Chinese brands, helping to educate the next generation and working together towards a common goal, so that China can become stronger. Of course, the Chinese government will also take practical measures to respond to Japan’s unilateral changes in the status of the Diaoyu Islands, such as strengthening patrols in the area.”

Only 15.15% said that they would respond to the protests by reconsidering the government position on Japan and/or taking tougher measures (interestingly, only four respondents mentioned a possibility of military action, while two appeared to imply economic sanctions; in most cases nothing more than a more overtly hostile diplomatic position was implied).

Among the respondents, 13.64% addressed their responses (or a part of their responses) to the Japanese government, but that these were entirely limited to reiterations of previous criticisms or demands that the islands be returned, and did not imply military or economic sanctions.

“I hope that everyone can express their demands rationally, without using violent or illegal means. At the same time we express a clear demand to Japan: return our Diaoyu Islands as soon as possible.”

I probably couldn’t suggest directly or even indirectly that the people just calm down, or my public relations would be D.O.A.! So we need to take it seriously and make a declaration that ‘We are severely condemning the Japanese authorities’ denial of history.’”

This could potentially be because participants reasoned that a single official would not have the right to modify policy on such an issue, though this contrasts with the amount of power they granted themselves in the economic/quality-of-life case. Alternatively, it could be related to the fact that the policy options and the desired outcomes in the first case were essentially one and the same (government compensates homeowners > homeowners receive compensation), whereas in the nationalism case outcomes depend upon the responses of an unpredictable third party (government takes tough stance > Japanese government concedes/does not concede). The relative lack of control of the Chinese government over outcomes in the Senkaku/Diaoyu case was mentioned by some respondents.

“We will make solemn representations to Japan. Japan’s actions will not help improve Sino-Japanese relations. Since ancient times the Diaoyu Islands have been an inherent part of Chinese territory. We reiterate China’s position concerning our sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and related islands, and express serious concern over recent developments. (P.S. The Diaoyu Islands are a long way from China’s coast. Previously it was difficult to conduct regular patrols. Sending fighter planes and warships was relatively difficult because it involved supply line problems. If we’ve got an aircraft carrier, we’ll start carrying out those kinds of operations. That’s my point of view.)”

“I think this kind of thing is very difficult to resolve; all it needs is time. As an official, all I can do is remind people to use appropriate means to express their protests and dissatisfaction, but do not overreact and cause damage to the property and personal safety of others. Even if your goal is justified, you will be held legally responsible for such acts.”

Nevertheless, the fact that the vast majority of respondents felt that a placatory response would constitute an acceptable outcome for both government and protesters appears to imply that they did not believe that protesters were committed to forcing a policy change on the part of the government.

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A Note on Tone and Situational Ethics

In both cases many respondents demonstrated sympathy for the protesters, but this was often not reflected in the solutions that they proposed when they were asked to imagine themselves in the position of a government official.

In fact, the tendency to both speak and think about the issues at hand differently when writing as oneself and in the persona of a government official was one of the most striking aspects of the responses to both articles. Not only did many respondents imitate (or parody) the literary style of official communiqués and press conferences when speaking in the character of a civil servant, but a substantial proportion also gave responses that appeared to be at odds with their previously-expressed opinions. The implication behind this would appear to be that the respondents in question do not see these questions as matters of principle or ideology with a single “correct” solution, but rather as contingent and strategic issues. Each group involved has their own ideal and unacceptable outcomes, and it is necessary to find a way to maximise the utility of all parties under these constraints.

“It seems that the government hurt the interests of thousands of property owners! They’re fighting for their rights. Faced with the government they have no choice but to hold demonstrations like this!” (Respondent W, asked about protesters’ feelings in the economic/quality-of-life case.)

“We will deal with this matter properly and we hope that the public will stop protesting. The government is doing this for the sake of economic development. We hope that everyone will understand each other and understand and support the government.” (Respondent W, asked what he would do if he were the official responsible for this issue.)

“Many families spent half of their life savings to buy a house, and with something like this policy change they’ve lost the labour of half a lifetime. Inexpressible indignation.” (Respondent X, asked about protesters’ feelings in the economic/quality-of-life case.)

“Protesters, we can understand everyone’s feelings at the moment. When the departments involved were formulating this policy we were negligent and did not consider the impact on everyone’s lives. But please believe that this policy was designed to better serve everyone. With everyone’s feedback concerning problems we will make checks and give you a reasonable explanation.” (Respondent X, asked what she would do if she were the official responsible for this issue.)

“Our own country’s territory was violated and we’re told to remain calm. This is a very irresponsible thing to say, making younger generations forget past humiliation.” (Respondent Y, asked about protesters’ feelings in the nationalism case.)

“Please be a bit sensible. The Diaoyu Islands are Chinese territory, there’s no doubt of this, but we shouldn’t use these kinds of intense methods. We should use appropriate means to protect our territory so it isn’t violated.” (Respondent Y, asked what he would do if he were the official responsible for this issue.)

“These anti-Japanese protests are expressing the voice of the masses. I think the government should take some measures to tackle the issue.” (Respondent Z, asked about anti-Japanese protesters’ feelings in the nationalism case.)

“I believe this issue will eventually be resolved, it’s only a matter of time. Now we are advocating for peace, but we firmly believe that the Diaoyu Islands are China’s. Please trust in the government, we will definitely solve this problem.” (Respondent Z, asked what he would do if he were the official responsible for this issue.)

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Some respondents went further and made the contrast between personal sentiments and official responsibilities explicit:

If I was an official I would understand the mood of the domestic protesters, but at the same time I would hope that protesters would be able to understand the effects of their own behaviour and not give way to impetuous impulses and cause riots.

This is a government policy, as such, government officials should recommend that everyone follow it…

Conclusion: Protest-as-Negotiation vs. Protest-as-Theatre

The goal of this research was to explore the question of whether ordinary Chinese citizens interpret the meaning and goals of nationalist protests differently from the meaning and goals of other forms of protest, and specifically of the economic/quality-of-life protests that constitute the vast majority of the demonstrations that take place in China every year.

Our evidence showed clear differences, particularly when it came to interpreting the goals and target audiences of the protests:

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Regarding the government actions that the respondents suggested as being likely to diffuse the situation (and thus, by implication, as potentially being acceptable to both sides), 62.27% of respondents in the economic/quality-of-life case put forward some sort of concrete change on the part of government as being apt to resolve the protests, as compared to 15.15% in the nationalism case. (Note: we have considered promises to reassess the government position as “concrete change” in this case. For the breakdown of the precise actions suggested, see above.)

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A certain amount of caution should be exercised in generalising from these results: only 507 subjects participated, with an attrition rate of around 43% for each question. Moreover, the use of open-ended questions renders the interpretation of the answers more subjective than would be the case in a multiple-choice questionnaire. However, the use of open-ended questions also allows participants to respond in ways that would not necessarily occur to the framers of a multiple choice survey, as well as to give nuanced viewpoints. Rather than providing a predictor of the precise breakdown of Chinese opinion on these particular issues, we aim to inform future studies by offering a description of the ways in which Chinese public opinion analyses, categorises and evaluates political actions.

In particular, we suggest that while nationalist demonstrations may be eye-catching, their principal aim is not to force the Chinese government to take a hard-line policy, and it is thus unlikely that the government will feel constrained by them. This stands in contrast with protests on economic issues, which demand (and in practice often receive) immediate action on the part of the authorities.

Annex I: Methodology

As described above, 507 participants were recruited online and given two articles to read, one on an economic protest and a second on a nationalist protest. (The exact texts can be downloaded here.)

Both of these articles were selected as providing “ideal type” examples of economic/quality-of-life and nationalist protests. Originally taken from the Taiwanese and Hong Kong press (reporting on all protests, and particularly on economic disputes, is severely limited in PRC media, with a large proportion of the information available to Chinese citizens coming from overseas Chinese-language sources), they were then modified to fit them for use in the survey. Firstly, the location of the economic/quality-of-life protest was moved from Shanghai to Kaohsiung (Taiwan). Chinese netizens occasionally suffer real-world consequences for commenting on local politics on the internet, a fact which had the potential to make Shanghai-based respondents wary of commenting on what they perceived to be a local affair. Kaohsiung was chosen as a replacement location on the basis that PRC citizens, regarding Taiwan as a part of China, could be expected to have similar levels of empathy for Taiwanese protesters as they would for PRC ones, without the risk of a proximity-induced chilling effect limiting their answers. The articles were also shortened in both cases. The tone was not modified, on the basis that reporting of nationalist protests tends to have a more emotional tenor than coverage of economic disputes, and it was judged better to use stimuli that were as realistic as possible than to artificially “equalise” the two reports.

Respondents were then asked three questions relating to each article:

1. How would you analyse the feelings of the protesters in essay A/B? Why? (Please write at least 25 characters.)

2. What was the goal of protesters in Article A/B? From your point of view, whom do you think the protest was directed towards? What do you think their ultimate aim is, and what is their key message? (For example, are they directing their protest towards national politicians, the media, foreign observers etc.? Please give your opinion in around 50 characters.)

3. Imagine that you are the official responsible for this problem. How would you respond to the protesters? (Please write at least 50 characters.)

Questions one and two aimed to clarify the rational and non-rational factors that were believed to be motivating the protesters. Question three, meanwhile, was included not with the aim of identifying actual or ideal government responses, but instead to give an idea of the minimum viable outcome that respondents felt would be acceptable for all parties concerned. In light of Chinese restrictions on political polling and to minimise any potential chilling effect, we did not solicit respondents’ personal views, though many participants volunteered their opinions spontaneously. The questions were subjected to two rounds of pre-testing, firstly among a sample of 10 Chinese students in Singapore and then using 25 volunteers recruited via Witmart.com, to identify possible sources of misunderstanding or political sensitivity. As a result of this testing, question two was modified to its current form for reasons of clarity.

The survey was conducted between September 2017 and July 2018, a period that did not include any particularly high-salience incidents liable to have an effect upon responses. The vast majority of participants (97.12%) in this study were university-educated. Similarly, a majority of the participants (54.67%) were residents of large cities. Of the participants who gave their ages, 62.12% were under 30, nearly 28.79% were between 31 and 40 years old and 8.33% were between 40 and 50, In total, 55.40% of respondents were male. Respondents were paid $2 for each survey, and their IP addresses were compared to ensure that individuals did not submit than more than one survey.

Like many Chinese opinion studies, this survey skewed towards a young, urban and educated sample, if only because the current state of Chinese infrastructure makes contacting other audiences relatively difficult. If our aim was to gather quantitative data to produce an accurate picture of Chinese public opinion on these subjects, then these defects (in addition to the relatively low number of participants) would be fatal to any claims to validity or generalisability. However, the goal of this study is not to produce a statistically representative outline of current trends in public opinion, but rather to use qualitative responses to an open-ended survey to build up a sense of the meaning of various types of protests as understood by Chinese audiences. As such, it may reasonably be assumed that while the participants’ levels of agreement or disagreement with the protests is not representative of the nation as a whole, a shared understanding of the meaning of the protests exists across all segments of society.

The data having been collected, it was used to created word-frequency tables for each question to isolate the principal themes, before coding the answers based on these themes. As previous research in the field has been criticised for “forcing a card” upon respondents either through the wording of the questions or the analytical methods used, we did not set out to search for evidence to support or refute our initial hypotheses, instead allowing themes to emerge organically before subsequently comparing the results to our initial predictions.

1 In China, for historical reasons, the left tends to hold conservative/nationalist views, while the right is progressive/cosmopolitan.

Doing research on public opinion.

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