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Contentious Stability: Government Response to Nationalist Protests and State-Society Relations in Contemporary China Open Access

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Why does the Chinese government permit popular nationalist protests some times but not others in the post-Tiananmen incident era? Given the ideological implications and broad appeal of nationalist protests in contemporary China, nationalist protests are prevented from taking place more often than not. Therefore, it is puzzling that the Chinese government would have allowed them to happen in certain cases, primarily protests triggered by disputes with Japan and the United States, because it involves very high political risks for the regime. Based on case studies of government response to potential and actual nationalist protests in China in the years after 1989, this dissertation argues that the response of Chinese government to popular nationalist protests triggered by external issues should be conceptualized as a process consisting of two stages: the initial stage, when there are signs of attempts at nationalist protests or only small-scale, sporadic protests have broken out, and the escalated stage, when nationalist protests have escalated into large-scale protests that cut across regional boundaries and class lines. It argues that at the first stage, only under rare conditions--when there is the coexistence of a) recent tense relations between China and the target country and b) elite disunity/indecision, the Chinese government would allow nationalist protests to take place. If nationalist protests have escalated, elite disunity or indecision would give way to the government’s collective will to re-impose domestic stability without backlash. The government’s response at this stage will be dependent on the public support the protests evoke and the nature of the protest demands. From high level to low level of coercion, the government will resort to repression (high-level coercion) when there is little public support for the nationalist protests, exercise discouragement (medium-level coercion) when protests enjoy high public support and spill over from nationalist ones to other issue areas, and respond with monitored tolerance (low-level coercion) when protests are with high public support and only with nationalist motivations.

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