In the years since Deng Xiaoping implemented his policy of reform and opening, China’s bureaucratic structure has undergone a fundamental transformation, which gives public opinion increasing influence over the formation and implementation of Chinese foreign policy. This paper will analyze how China’s bureaucratic institutions have evolved during the reform era to integrate more points of view, the actors who wield the greatest influence in this new system, and the ways in which public opinion will likely influence Chinese foreign policy in the future.
The paper begins by identifying the actors who play a role in Chinese public opinion — namely the elite, sub-elite, and the general public — and the ways in which they differ in terms of worldview, methods, and degree of influence. It then analyzes the dual role of popular nationalism in the eyes of the Chinese leadership as both a source of regime legitimacy and a constraint on policy options. Several recent foreign policy events indicate that despite the warnings of many China-watchers that bottom-up nationalism will lead to a more aggressive foreign policy, Beijing’s behavior has not been uncooperative or irrational. The paper concludes that while government sensitivity to public opinion can have negative implications with regard to assertive nationalism, the U.S. should view the enhanced role of public opinion as a positive development. Judging by its measured response to recent crises, the government has a strong interest in mitigating expressions of aggressive nationalism, which can be destabilizing and threaten the regime's survival. Instead they favor what is often referred to as “pragmatic nationalism,” which places the greatest importance on economic development, national unity, independence, and international status.