Netizen Opinion and China's Foreign Policy: Interpreting Narratives about North Korea on Chinese Social Media

By Scobell, Andrew; Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Nathan et al. | Asia Policy, July 2019 | Go to article overview

Netizen Opinion and China's Foreign Policy: Interpreting Narratives about North Korea on Chinese Social Media


Scobell, Andrew, Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Nathan, Cevallos, Astrid, Chan, Arthur, Winkelman, Zev, Asia Policy


This article analyzes the largest sample of online public opinion to date on one of the most complicated contemporary foreign policy challenges confronting the People's Republic of China (PRC): the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. Beijing's behavior toward its neighbor has been remarkably restrained in the face of repeated provocations-including nuclear tests and missile launches-which come at a time when Beijing has acted assertively on other foreign policy issues.1 Chinese elite attitudes toward the DPRK have been widely reported, including debates among academic and military elites about whether China should "abandon" North Korea.2 In the past, discussion of popular views has been constrained by the limited availability of information, but the widespread use of social media in China now provides data for in-depth analysis of online public opinion. Such analysis can shed light on the role that Chinese internet users, or "netizens," may play in shaping the leadership's foreign policy options toward North Korea.

The place of public opinion in China's foreign policy is a common yet controversial research topic.2 Some studies assert that public opinion is a key independent variable in shaping the policies of the PRC toward Japan and the United States.4 Other studies conclude that Chinese leaders manipulate public opinion to obtain leverage against other countries.5 Even those who assert the relevance of public opinion for the PRC's North Korea policy disagree about its precise impact: Thomas Christensen argues that public opinion constrains policy options for Chinese leaders, while Simon Shen contends that it expands those options.6 To date, there has been no thorough analysis of the impact of public opinion on China's policy toward North Korea. According to one expert, however, "there is no other area in Chinese foreign policy where such dissent from official policy is so clearly evident."7 An analysis of this issue is thus particularly desirable. Providing greater texture and context than existing studies, our findings reveal that Chinese online public opinion tends to mirror elite perceptions of North Korea. Our research also suggests that Beijing is sensitive to popular views toward Pyongyang, closely monitors public opinion on the topic, and acknowledges this sentiment.

While we are unable to demonstrate its impact on the PRC's North Korea policy, online public opinion is clearly relevant to policymakers. We know this both because Chinese leaders tell us that they pay attention to popular views expressed online and because PRC officials regularly make decisions about which topics they will censor online and when based on leadership instructions. This is certainly true of opinion about North Korea.8 Other research suggests that this is also true for other sensitive foreign policy issues, such as Japan.9 This article is organized as follows:

* pp. 101-6 discuss the article's methodology by reviewing previous measures of Chinese public opinion, with particular attention to public opinion on North Korea, and by describing the study's methods for collecting, coding, and analyzing Chinese-language social media data on North Korea.

* pp. 106-16 examine four popular narratives identified within the dataset that may influence China's North Korea policy, including ridicule of the Kim regime, criticism of the PRC through comparisons with the DPRK, discussion of how the history of the relationship shapes China's reputation, and commentary on foreign policy. It also examines the popular parody Weibo account of Cui Chenghao.

* pp. 117-20 analyze these popular narratives and contrast them with the official narrative, and then consider the place of public opinion in China's DPRK policy.

* pp. 120-21 conclude with a discussion of the implications of the findings for Beijing's policy toward North Korea.

MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION IN CHINA

Previous Measures of Chinese Public Opinion

We contend that public opinion, defined as the "aggregate of individual attitudes" within a society,10 is a significant variable in an authoritarian polity such as the PRC. …

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