The Japan Times

By Ben Dooley

A majority of Chinese citizens believe the United Nations, not the battlefield, is the proper venue for settling their country’s maritime disputes with Japan, according to a first-of-its-kind opinion poll released last week.

The survey, as reported by the University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Centre, undercuts growing concern that an increasingly nationalistic Chinese public is calling for the use of intimidation, perhaps force, in the disagreement over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

Instead, the report claims that Chinese “are cautious about the prospect of military action over the islands and, in principle at least, open to the idea of a compromise.”

The results are based on more than 1,400 in-person interviews with respondents from five Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Researchers conducted the survey in March 2013, about six months after violent protests swept through more than 100 Chinese cities following news the Japanese government had purchased several of the disputed islands from their private owner.

In the months following the riots, the Chinese public seemed to be spoiling for a fight and belligerent anti-Japanese rhetoric exploded across the country’s websites and social media.

The report, however, presents a different picture.

More than 60 percent of Chinese, it claims, believed the countries should settle their differences at the United Nations.

There was “a silent majority. Especially when it comes to the Internet,” according to Andrew Chubb, a researcher on Chinese public opinion who wrote the report.

The moderate opinions of average Chinese, Chubb argues, are often difficult to discern over the clamor of nationalistic voices that fill the country’s online forums, blogs and news comment sections.

Foreign media, the report suggests, may have compounded the impression of rising militarism by paying outsized attention to news outlets with relatively undersized influence, such as the Global Times.

In a December 2012 editorial, the semi-state-run daily newspaper, which is notorious for saber-rattling, all but called for China to go to war over the Senkakus. “If the government steps back, it will become the world’s laughing stock. If it goes forward, it will face military confrontation,” it wrote, concluding “going forward is the only choice.”

While foreign media highlighted the piece as representative of the country’s mood, the Chinese public seems to have ignored it: Less than 1 percent of respondents named the paper as a place where they went for news about China’s maritime disputes.

Instead, the report claims, 90 percent of the respondents had turned to the television for their information.

The surprising result suggests Beijing, which exercises tight control over the content of broadcast news, may be better at influencing public opinion than it lets on.

In fact, the study found respondents who learned about the disputes from TV were most likely to approve of the government’s handling of the issue. The point seems to contradict the popular refrain that national anger over the disputed territories has limited Beijing’s policy choices on the issue.

But if the riots weren’t driven by national outrage over Japan’s Senkakus policy, how can they be explained?

“These results lend support to the hypothesis that the violence was less a result of out-of-control nationalist fervor among the Chinese population than the venting of disillusionment and opportunistic criminal behavior,” the report concludes. Despite the pacifist inclinations displayed in the survey’s results, they make it clear Chinese believe their nation can push if shoved.

Over 85 percent believe China has the military power to “retake” the Senkakus from Japan if necessary.

Even so, there’s little appetite: Over 53 percent said China should not risk military confrontation even if provoked.

This article was originally published in The Japan Times