China’s Foreign Policies and Attitudes toward Chinese Diaspora

Featured image credit: Indonesian Maritime Security Agency

Does information about China’s foreign policies shape attitudes toward ethnic Chinese minorities? When people learn China did a “bad” thing, does it make them more negative toward ethnic Chinese?

Some people believe that is indeed the case (see for example, this article, this, and this). At some point, even we subscribed to the assumption. If this association was true, that would be significant because it would mean ethnic Chinese becoming collateral damage for increasingly aggressive China’s foreign policies.

So, my co-author and I embarked on a study to explicitly test this assumption and find: “not really, actually.” (The study may be downloaded here).

We fielded two national surveys, one in January 2020 and one in December 2020, interviewing in total more than 4,000 respondents, We ran an experimental design, in effect randomly assigning respondents into one of four groups:

(1) Those who were presented with information about China entering Indonesia’s waters,
(1) Those who were presented with information about China discriminating against the Muslim Uighurs,
(1) Those who were presented with information about China investing in Indonesia’s first high-speed rail project,
(1) Those who were presented with no information about China policies.

Then, we asked their views on China and Chinese Indonesians.

Treatment Wording in the January 2020 Study
Treatment Wording in the December 2020 Study

If the conventional wisdom is correct, then respondents exposed to negative information about China (for example, that it violates Indonesia’s waters or discriminates against the Muslim Uighurs) would be more negative toward China and ethnic Chinese than respondents in the control group who received no information. Conversely, respondents exposed to positive information should be more positive toward China and ethnic Chinese.

We do not find such effects. Contrary to popular take, the effects of China’s foreign policies on attitudes toward Chinese diaspora are minimal. China doing bad did not lead to more negative attitudes toward ethnic Chinese. If anything, China itself pays the price. Territorial violations made respondents less likely to believe cooperation with China is beneficial.

Effects of the Treatments

We came back from the project with two realizations. First,:causality is hard. What is intuitive and widely believed might not be empirically true. Second, we suspect links between China’s actions as a state & prejudice against ethnic Chinese would depend on domestic politicization. Voters’ blaming ethnic Chinese for what China does is not given. Politicians have to lead and teach voters to blame the latter for the former’s transgression.