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Online Foreign Policy Discourse in Contemporary China: Netizens, Nationalism, and the New Media Open Access

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What causes the Chinese online public to challenge their government’s handling of foreign policy events? How does the state respond to such challenges? Both public dissent and state repression of online discourse vary widely across events. This dissertation argues that two key factors explain this variation: the relative nationalist significance of a given issue, and the coherence of state propaganda addressing it.Previous explanations for public dissent over foreign policy issues in Western nations have focused on elite divisions. This study builds on such work to argue that the Chinese public is capable of offering meaningful, independent discourse about China’s foreign relations, but will do so only when the issue at hand is of high nationalist significance and state propaganda is unfocused. Since China lacks open divisions among elites, the absence of a clear official narrative is a necessary condition for widespread online dissent. State dominance of the public discourse is thus a common but not inevitable outcome, alongside independent discourse, limited discourse, and accord between the state and public. Meanwhile, recent work has argued that an event’s potential for collective action explains patterns of repression on the Chinese Internet. Although this may be true in the aggregate, foreign policy issues are different. When faced with an external actor and the threat of nationalist challenges to the Party, repression becomes more likely the more that public discourse deviates from favored official narratives. Censorship, news blackouts, and other repressive actions do not follow directly from the presence or absence of collective action around foreign policy events but from the relative severity of the public’s challenge to the state. Four key cases are used to test these arguments: the November 2013 East China Sea ADIZ announcement, the December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Kiev protests and Russian invasion of Crimea during February and March of 2014, and the May 2014 Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig dispute which prompted anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. This study utilizes millions of Sina Weibo messages collected from 2013 to 2015, hundreds of articles published in official media, and face-to-face interviews with Chinese experts on foreign policy and media. It employs quantitative analysis of textual data via sentiment analysis and topic modeling techniques, as well as qualitative examination of content and trends online and in official media. This research contributes to our understanding not only of online political discourse and state-society relations in China, but also to debates over the role of public opinion in authoritarian states and the nature of nationalism in the PRC.

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