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February 20, 2013, by Editor

(Un)leashing Public Opinion: The State, Media, and Audience Demands during Anti-Japanese Protests in China

By Danie Stockmann.

Nationalism seems to be on the rise in China. Since the late 1990s nationalist protests have taken place almost annually. As evident during the recent Senkaku / Diaoyu island disputes in the East China Sea, anti-foreign protests have been primarily directed against Japan, but also the United States. It is widely believed that this rise of Chinese nationalism is mainly a result of propaganda initiated by the state to boost the stability of the Chinese Communist Party.

In contrast to these common beliefs, a closer look at the interactions between state and media during anti-Japanese protests in China reveals that it is often the absence of state restrictions that lead to highly negative reporting about Japan in the news.

Nationalism has become a double-edged sword to the Chinese leadership. On the one hand, Jiang Zemin propagated nationalism as a substitute for decline in socialist ideology in order to improve the party’s legitimacy in the 1990s. But in the early 2000s popular nationalism started to pose pressures and constraints on the Chinese leadership. In response to these pressures, the Propaganda Department has tried to pull public opinion towards Japan (and also the US) into a positive direction in recent years. As shown in my recent book “Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), under normal circumstances, the government uses media as a tool to “massage” negative sentiment.

The one exception to this general trend is a crisis as we have seen during the recent wave of anti-Japanese protests. Here, I am going to illustrate these dynamics based on a study of the 2005 anti-Japanese protests. In March and April 2005, political ties between China and Japan had become strained over several issues, most importantly the Japanese Ministry of Education approved junior high school history textbooks that were interpreted as white-washing Japanese war crimes during its occupation of China and Korea in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the beginning, the government did not constrain news reporting, but on April 9 the first protest took place in Beijing in response to the approval to the high school textbooks, and the Propaganda Department quickly issued instructions to media to tone down their criticism of Japan. The media were asked to publicize calls by the Foreign Ministry for people to express their feelings in a “calm, rational, and orderly manner in accordance with the law” and to let the government handle the crisis through diplomatic means. [1] The reason why the government held such a tight grip of the media was that a week later, on April 17, the Japanese foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura was expected in Beijing to participate in the Asia-Europe meeting.

Market-based media and online media generally followed suit and toned down news reporting. A content analysis of People’s Daily and Beijing Youth Daily before and after press restrictions were imposed revealed that both papers moved from highly negative to more neutral reporting. Similarly, in the days prior to the press restrictions, the main headlines on the online news Web site Sina.com included such headlines as, “Support Publicizing the List of Names of Japanese People Who Selfishly Revised the History Textbook” (7 April) and “Regarding the History Textbook Issue, Japan Falsely Accuses the Chinese Side of Instigating Anti-Japanese Sentiment” (8 April). Starting on 10 April, Japan disappeared from the main headline and individual news reports were toned down. By 14 April, news reports were titled “Japanese Foreign Minister Will Visit on April 17 to Suggest Investigating History Together” and “(Chinese) Foreign Ministry Spokesman Denies That Chinese Foreign Students in Japan Have Been Killed.”

This pattern is very typical of China’s management of media in crisis situations. Increasingly, Chinese media are undergoing what Chinese communication scholars have called (yulun weiji) “public opinion crisis.” Public opinion crisis refers to cycles of popular mobilization by online and marketized media whereby issues are suddenly funneled to the center of public discourse, thus placing pressure and constraints on the Chinese leadership. In the context of foreign politics, public mobilization occurs when the Propaganda Department abstains from giving instructions to media. Negative news sells well, because Chinese audiences are attracted by criticism towards Japan or the US in the media.

So when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that the recent purchase of the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China sea by the Japanese government “rouses strong opposition from the Chinese government and people”,[2] one source of information about public opinion is reporting by marketized media during periods in which the Propaganda Department abstains from giving directives.

In the case of the 2012 anti-Japanese protests, Chinese media were widely allowed to report about the Diaoyu / Senkaku island dispute. According to the International Federation of Journalists, a number of provincial Propaganda Departments, however, banned local media from reporting the protests.

Why the Propaganda Department tolerates the expression of anti-foreign sentiment in Chinese media is still debated among China scholars, ranging from using protests strategically to increase audience costs in international relations to arguing that division amongst the leadership such as during the current succession undermines coordination among elites. Whatever the motivations are behind the government’s strategy, I would like to emphasize that market-based media do represent state and society during periods in which the Propaganda Department abstains from giving directives. Journalists follow audience demands, and one-sided negative reporting toward Japan is a result of a taste for criticism regarding Japanese foreign policy among media audiences. At the same time, this expression of anti-foreign sentiment is also tolerated by the Propaganda Department.

But highly negative reporting also creates worries that too much negative news reporting may bring about disorder and could get out of control. Officials usually impose press restrictions to appease potential protesters, and media tend to comply with these restrictions.

From the perspective of audiences it is, of course, not obvious when the state allows or restricts media content. However, the absence of warnings in media give the impression that the government is at least not against the protests and thus gives signals to potential political activists that mobilization is permissible. In the anti-Japanese protests in 2005, the state at first refrained from sending out any signals about its position on the protests before 9 April. However, after 9 April warnings were publicized in newspapers and through the Internet and cell phone messages reminding citizens that demonstrations needed approval by the Public Security Bureau and that because further demonstrations had not received such approval, they would be considered illegal. Via such communications, the government successfully deterred participants from engaging in further protest action. Just as the absence of warnings or limitations on reporting signal toleration and mobilize potential activists, warnings and limitations have the opposite effect. It is therefore the absence of state restrictions which can play a key role in the rise of anti-Japanese protests in China.

Danie Stockmann is Assistant Professor with Tenure in the Department of Political Science, Leiden University. She has published extensively on Chinese media and public opinion. 


[1] See “Japan Told to Face Up the Past,” China Daily,13 April 2005. Similar announcements followed on April 19 (see New York Times, 20, 21, 23 April).

[2] See, for example, comments made by Wu Ken, ambassador to Switzerland, at the Europe Forum in Luzern, November 6, 2012, available here 

Posted in China-JapanCulture and Media