Netizen Opinion and China's Foreign Policy

Interpreting Narratives About North Korea on Chinese Social Media

Published in: Asia Policy, Volume 14, Number 3 (July 2019)

Posted on RAND.org on May 18, 2021

by Andrew Scobell, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Astrid Stuth Cevallos, Arthur Chan, Zev Winkelman

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The impact of netizen opinion on one of China's most challenging contemporary foreign policy issues is difficult to assess. Previous research on Chinese attitudes toward North Korea has focused on elite policy debates and paid little attention to popular views. To address this imbalance, this article collects a novel dataset of thousands of Chinese-language social media posts on the leading microblog, Sina Weibo (Xinlang Weibo), in 2015. Analysis of this dataset reveals four multilayered popular Chinese narratives on North Korea: one ridiculing the country and its youthful leader Kim Jong-un, a second critiquing China via unflattering comparisons and parallels with North Korea, a third assessing China and the legacy of the Korean War, and a fourth addressing the ongoing foreign policy security challenge that North Korea poses to China. These popular narratives are in direct conflict with China's official narrative of long-standing, battle-tested comradely relations between the two states. This official narrative also pointedly omits any detailed characterization of North Korea and its leaders and only refers to denuclearization in the context of the entire peninsula. Moreover, the popular narratives mirror elite discourse while providing greater nuance and context for understanding Beijing's tormented relationship with Pyongyang. These findings underscore the complexities and underlying sensitivities of China's disposition vis-à-vis North Korea.

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