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Understanding China’s Hawkish Reactions to C.I.A. Informant Killings: Does Popular Nationalism in China Affect U.S.-China Relations?

On Monday, May 22, the New York Times revealed that China had killed or imprisoned at least a dozen C.I.A. informants in the country from the end of 2010 to the end of 2012. Ten current and former anonymous American officials had revealed the previously unreported significant intelligence breach. The breach had the effect of “crippling intelligence gathering [in China] for years afterward.” The article does not mention when the New York Times obtained the information about the intelligence breach.

The first official Chinese reaction was Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s comment during the Regular Press Conference on the same day. Hua stated that while she was “not aware of the details of the report,” China has been “handling organizations, personnel and activities that endanger China’s national security and interests” as authorized by law. The People’s Daily, an official Chinese Communist Party (CPC) newspaper, reported on Hua’s statement, which emphasizes the legality of China’s actions in protecting its own national security.

While Hua and The People’s Daily sought to emphasize the legality and legitimacy of China’s act of dismantling of C.I.A. spying operations, some voices in China took on nationalist and even jingoistic bents. The Global Times, an English-language official CPC newspaper known for its nationalist tendencies, presented the C.I.A. killings episode in an article titled “NYT’s spy in China story full of narcissism.” The Global Times argued that if China had really succeeded in dismantling the C.I.A.’s spy network without the U.S. knowing, the event should be considered a “sweeping victory.” The article claimed that China has the capabilities to dismantle another C.I.A. spy network if a second attempt were made to set it up. It stated that China’s anti-espionage activities are “just and legal” under international law, while the C.I.A.’s espionage is not. The Global Times also noted that the NYT story could be “a piece of American-style imagination based on ideology.” The responses by Chinese internet users on platforms such as Sina Weibo has included similar nationalist rhetoric, with users sharing comments along the lines of “Strike hard against spy traitors, protect the country’s security!” and “Well done! Good on you China.”

How can American audiences better understand the anti-American sentiment in China that is often picked up by Western media? What implications do these voices have for Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations? Two key ideas can help American audiences better understand the origins and implications of China’s nationalist official and popular rhetoric.

Primary school students show “Never Forget National Humiliation” banners in 2014 in Lianyungang City, Jiangsu Province. (Image Credit: Xinhua News)

The first idea is that popular nationalism in China is deeply rooted and that its militaristic implications may or may not agree with the official state position. International relations scholars such as Thomas Christensen, Susan Shirk, Peter Hayes Gries, and Zheng Wang have observed that the CPC turned to nationalism after China’s economic reforms in the 1970s had undermined the persuasiveness of communism as a unifying ideology. The CPC deliberately cultivated a form of nationalism based on China’s “national humiliation” narrative through propaganda, textbooks, museums, public histories, and other channels. The nationalist criticisms that erupted among Chinese around the world in response to incidents like the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and to perceived slights of China today are evidence that nationalism has become genuinely ingrained at the popular level. But nationalism does not necessarily translate into support for the ruling regime. Nationalism could also enable citizens to band together and overthrow a ruling regime that they are dissatisfied with. CPC leaders, like most authoritarian leaders, are acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of their rule. They highly prioritize maintaining “social stability” (which is another term for “protest prevention” or “regime survival” in China) and closely track the over 100,000 protests that occur in China each year.

Dai Bingguo speaking about China’s core interests during the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009. (Image credit: People’s Daily Online)

The popular nationalism that was born from the CPC’s nationalist legitimation strategies, then, directly contributes to hawkish political commentary. Chinese analysts have found that China’s media is skewed toward nationalism because the CPC incentivizes media outlets to propagate nationalist messages and because the Propaganda Department strikes down liberal commentary. The Global Times article uses nationalist rhetoric that echoes China’s narrative of “national humiliation” and its associated political legitimization and popular mobilization strategies. The idea that military victories over the Western developed powers are great triumphs has been in place since the early days of the People’s Republic of China. The appeal to the legal and moral legitimacy of China’s actions evokes its opposite: the illegitimate, immoral bullying of China by the advanced industrial powers from the mid-nineteenth century to when China began to “stand up” for itself in 1949. International relations scholars such as Zheng Wang, Peter Hayes Gries, and William Callahan find that this perception of being bullied or treated unfairly by foreign powers continues to impact CPC decision-making today.

Scholars such as Jessica Chen Weiss have observed that the CPC has been able to choose between supporting hardline, nationalist positions and avoiding them in favor of more moderate positions. Since the CPC relies on popular nationalism for political legitimacy, the CPC leaders’ choice between endorsing hard-line nationalist views, taking on more moderate views, or even censoring militant nationalist views (such as in the case of the censored warmongering comments about the ruling on the South China Sea) depends on how pressured Party leaders feel to appeal to or satisfy domestic sentiments. In the case of the NYT report on the C.I.A. informant killings, the CPC was able to share a firm but moderate statement—one that signals China’s reasonable willingness to cooperate with other states and adhere to international law. But it may also be the case that China may one day take on more extreme rhetoric or actions.

The second idea is that China genuinely feels threatened by the United States and its neighbors, as a result of purely realpolitik considerations, its historically influenced interpretation of international relations, or a combination of both. In the episode of the C.I.A. informant killings, this perception of foreign threats has dominated the official state response.

China has been stepping up its anti-espionage activities in recent years and has increasingly been employing anti-espionage methods that involve mass participation. In November 2014, China instituted a “counter-espionage law” that provided a clear legal definition of espionage for the first time. In November 2015, China instituted a national hotline for reporting suspected espionage—a move that is considered by some to echo the neighborhood-level mutual policing of the Maoist era. On China’s inaugural National Security Education Day on April 15, 2016, the Chinese government released a poster that warned Chinese female government workers about the dangers of dating handsome foreigners who are secretly spies. The poster was aimed at educating government employees about protecting classified information and reporting suspected espionage. It has appeared on the bulletin boards of local governments. One year later, the Beijing National Security Bureau released new whistleblower ad campaign featuring a 4-minute animated video on how to spot and report spies. The video depicts spies as foreigners with robber masks persuading children to steal government secrets. Successful whistleblowers can receive up to 500,000 yuan ($72,460), which is nearly six times that of the average 2015 wage of 85,000 yuan ($12,300) in Beijing.

A panel from China’s National Security Education Day poster in 2016. The comic warns Chinese female government workers about the dangers of dating handsome foreigners who are secretly spies. (Image credit: China Law Translate/South China Morning Post)

The April 2017 video may encourage distrust of foreigners and fan the flames of nationalism. Analysts have noted that the new anti-espionage campaign could put foreign journalists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) employees at risk. Li Fan, founder of the private think tank World and China Institute, stated that that the new campaign could indiscriminately target and fuel mistrust of foreigners. He also commented that the video could make Chinese people more cautious to speak with foreign media. The instructions reminded Li of the Cultural Revolution, during which neighbors and family members were encouraged report one another.

But China genuinely considers espionage to be a severe threat. China has detained numerous foreigners suspected of espionage and has faced several high-profile defections in recent years. As a rapidly rising power with massive economic clout, China is aware that officials and analysts in neighboring countries and the United States consider the country to be a threat. The United States and China’s neighbors attempt to improve their security by building up their militaries and exercising diplomatic caution, which in turn makes China less secure in a conflict spiral known as “security dilemma.” China’s perception of international threats may be compounded by the historical perception that aggressive foreign states have tended to treat China unfairly.

What can the American public and policymakers infer about Chinese reactions to foreign developments that vary significantly in hawkishness, then? For one, the Chinese popular and Party media reactions are often much more nationalist and war-inclined than the official state reactions. But the Chinese has previously supported the hard-line nationalist position, such as by allowing anti-American protests like it did in 1999 after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. While it would be unlikely for China to support anti-American sentiment today (in face of the mounting importance of U.S.-China cooperation), tacit state support of some forms of popular nationalism would not be not unimaginable. It is best to consider China’s official state reactions and popular reactions as related to one another, since CPC leadership both benefits from and is constrained by popular nationalist sentiment.

American audiences should also consider China’s strict handling of suspected espionage activity in the context of the tremendous insecurity that China faces on both the international level and the domestic level. Increased efforts to engage in dialogue about security issues are necessary to improve the mutual understanding between the United States and China. While the NYT article about the C.I.A. informant killings may increase tensions between the two countries—especially among domestic audiences—it may also help promote U.S.-China dialogue on security issues.

(Featured image credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China)

By RUKA WANG MAY 25 2017

Ruka Wang is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.


  • The U.S.-China Perception Monitor (中美印象) is an online publication that explores perception and misperception in U.S.-China relations through insightful commentaries, interviews with experts, and profiles on key figures in the bilateral relationship.