Nationalist Street Protests and Chinese Foreign Policy

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New research published this month by Cambridge Journals in International Organization finds that street protests are often key indications of whether an authoritarian regime is constrained by public opinion or able to compromise.

Authoritarian regimes often manage anti-foreign street demonstrations to signal how strongly they feel about an issue and how much they are willing to engage abroad.

New research published this month by Cambridge Journals in International Organization finds that street protests are often key indications of whether an authoritarian regime is constrained by public opinion or able to compromise.

The study, ‘Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and Nationalist Protest in China’ was carried out by Jessica Chen Weiss, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale.

In one of few studies about anti-foreign protest, Weiss finds that a regime’s tolerant or repressive response in the face of street protests is a valuable signal that can be de-coded by other governments.

Tolerating nationalist protest may allow an authoritarian regime to signal that its hands are tied by domestic opinion and it cannot make the concessions being demanded. Repressing anti-foreign protest can show that the regime is willing to risk unpopularity at home in order to engage diplomatically abroad.

Weiss studied two crises in China that provoked popular outrage against American actions across the country: the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by US planes in 1999 during a NATO air strike, and a mid-air collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a US reconnaissance plane in 2001.

After the Yugoslavia bombing, the Chinese government allowed anti-American protests to take place, but after the plane collision, the authorities prevented them. Weiss’s study shows that in both instances, these decisions helped communicate China’s underlying foreign policy intentions.

By allowing anti-American protests in 1999, the Chinese government communicated its determination to stand up to the United States, as well as showing it would listen to domestic demands to take a tougher foreign policy stance.

By repressing nationalist protests in 2001, the Chinese government sent a domestically costly signal of its intent to keep US-China relations on an even keel – despite domestic accusations that the government was not being tough enough.

Weiss also found evidence of anti-foreign protest in authoritarian regimes around the world. From Pakistan to Cambodia, from Jordan to Vietnam, governments choose to stifle, tolerate, stage-manage, and even manufacture street protests. These choices reveal information about the regime’s willingness to “go to the brink.” Tolerating some anti-foreign nationalist protests shows a government’s incentive to stand firm and risk an international standoff rather than face the wrath of mobs at the palace gates.

“On the other hand, giving a ‘red light’ to nationalist protests signals that the government places high enough value on international co-operation to offset the cost of appearing unpatriotic before domestic audiences. If authoritarian leaders prevent protest in a manner visible to foreign governments – arresting activists the night before a rumored demonstration or dispersing protesters as they gather – the act of repression sends a costly signal of reassurance.”

In a five-year study carried out between 2006 and 2011, Weiss interviewed eight Chinese and 13 US officials (both currently and formerly in office), 43 Chinese experts and intellectuals and 16 protest participants.


Notes to Editors
Jessica Chen Weiss. ‘Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and Nationalist Protest in China’ (2013). International Organization; 16 January 2013; doi: 10.1017/S0020818312000380.

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