Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Debs, Alexandre


My dissertation project (``Harnessing the Masses: International Conflict and Chinese Public Opinion") examines the interaction between Chinese foreign policy and public opinion. It comprises three empirical papers. I generalize theories of international relations and political economy developed under democratic settings and explore the role of domestic audiences in Chinese foreign policymaking. My main findings are two-fold. On the one hand, the state holds considerable political resources and plays an influential role in setting the political agenda. It has the power to mobilize popular nationalism in support of hawkish policies under favorable circumstances (e.g., territorial disputes). On the other hand, blind patriotism or passive loyalty to the authoritarian regime does not fully explain the micro-level dynamics of public opinion. Chinese citizens are sophisticated and deliberate when processing information about international conflict, which generates bottom-up pressure and constrains the authoritarian state. My dissertation challenges the conventional wisdom that the domestic audience is solely driven by state-led nationalism and that the authoritarian government can garner public support at zero cost. In the first paper (``External Coercion and Public Support"), I explore the dynamics of public support in the US--China trade war using two waves of online surveys and large-scale social media data. In the survey experiments, I randomly assign respondents to different hypothetical bargaining outcomes based on the real-world interaction between China and the US. I uncover two main causal mechanisms that explain the variations in public approval of the government: the state’s reputation for resolve and the economic consequences. The relative explanatory power of the two mechanisms is contingent on individual preferences and situational changes. Additional topic analysis on a large corpus of social media data collected during the US--China trade war reaffirms the importance of the two mechanisms and discloses the temporal variation in popular topics, especially citizens’ increasing economic considerations. I also discover considerable differences between social media content and official messages, indicating the state’s imperfect control over the public discourse. In the second paper (``Does Nationalism Rally Political Support for Authoritarian States?"), I evaluate the logic of diversionary conflict under the Chinese context. I examine the change of general political attitudes based on two major conflicts: the 2012 Diaoyu Islands dispute and the 2018–19 US--China trade war. With survey data collected before and after the outbreak of the two conflicts, I test whether international conflict can boost domestic support for the authoritarian government. I separate the concept of nationalism into two dimensions: anti-foreign sentiment (negative) and in-group solidarity (positive). I show that while anti-foreign sentiment was moderately strengthened by international conflict, in-group solidarity remained largely stable, and the level of general political support was unchanged. I conclude that the domestic benefits of international conflict should not be exaggerated: The temporary spike in anti-foreign sentiment does not necessarily dampen citizens’ sensitivity to domestic problems or make citizens less critical of their government. In the third paper (``Weaponizing the Masses: Popular Nationalism and Chinese Economic Statecraft"), I explore the state’s influence on public opinion and its relationship with economic statecraft. Specifically, I estimate the effect of interstate conflict on economic exchanges mediated by state mobilization of popular nationalism. I argue that state-sponsored nationalism disrupts international economic exchanges and conveys a costly signal of resolve to the targeted state. One mechanism I highlight is that popular nationalism powerfully politicizes economic issues and pressures economic agents to follow the red flag. For the empirical analysis, I first examine two sets of cases from 2008 to 2019, including major conflicts between China and Japan, South Korea and the US respectively, and two most similar events between China and France and the UK that are expected to have the so-called ``Dalai Lama Effect." I show that the economic impact of political conflict is not homogeneous, and that stronger nationalist activism (as indicated by large-scale protests and consumer boycotts) is associated with a sharper decline in Chinese imports from other countries. To make a stronger causal claim, I examine regional variations in popular nationalism in the 2012 Diaoyu Islands dispute and discover a negative effect of nationalism on imports and direct investments from Japan using the diff-in-diff (DID) design. Taken together, my dissertation unveils a sophisticated picture of Chinese nationalism. On the one hand, the disruptive effect of popular nationalism on economic exchanges makes it a coercive tool for state leaders to impose sanctions on foreign actors. On the other hand, the state’s influence over public opinion should not be exaggerated as citizens still make sophisticated calculations of the conflict and their support for the government is not unconditional. Under certain circumstances, public support for hawkish policies may dwindle and state leaders are incentivized to back down.