Understanding China’s Rise : Competing Online Identity Discourses behind Short-term Changes in Foreign Policy

Sammanfattning: China has undergone a remarkable rise in the past four decades, its economy and material power growing substantially. These developments have led to several interlinked debates about how we should understand this rise. What determines China’s foreign policy as it rises? Will this rise be peaceful, seeing China integrate into the current international order, or will it result in large-scale conflict? Existing research engaging in these debates has tended to focus on the longer-term evolution of China’s foreign policy and paid less attention to short-term changes, even though these appear to contribute to its evolving foreign policy. When research does attempt to explain short-term changes, use of realist, liberal, and mainstream constructivist international relations (IR) theories have only been partly effective in doing so.This thesis contributes to these debates by employing critical constructivist IR theory to study the short-term foreign policy changes China has shown towards different issues. It seeks to make sense of these changes through an examination of changes in the identity discourses which underpin foreign policy, focusing on those discourses produced online. It examines two case studies in which there have been puzzling short-term changes: China and North Korea and China and the South China Sea, studying foreign policy regarding these issues between 2014 and 2018. In each case study, a mixed-methods approach is used and the analysis employs qualitative discourse analysis and quantitative text analysis to examine changes in identity discourses produced by both the Chinese state and the public. It uses a large corpus of articles from the online edition of the Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily and around half a million posts from the social media platform Weibo. By analysing discourses produced by the Chinese state and public, the research examines the role of both “bottom up” and “top down” forces in shaping foreign policy.In both case studies, the analysis found that changes in dominant identity discourses corresponded with short-term changes in foreign policy, where these shifts in dominance were partly the result of the “bottom-up” production of identity by the Chinese public. For the China and North Korea case, the dominance of a “Stakeholder” identity discourse was seen when the Chinese government showed greater willingness to cooperate with the international community in taking action against North Korea. In the South China Sea case study, a very resonant “Peaceful Asian Leader” identity discourse appeared when the Chinese government shifted to a foreign policy of greater cooperation with Southeast Asian states. I argue these dominant identity discourses, partly produced by the Chinese public, made possible the observed short-term changes in foreign policy.These findings speak to the debates about China’s rise. They indicate that China’s foreign policy towards different issues is made possible by the construction of its identity in discourse. They provide evidence to suggest that the Chinese public, by contributing to this identity construction, can have a “bottom up” influence on its foreign policy. The findings suggest there is considerable contingency in whether China’s rise will ultimately be peaceful. China’s adoption of conflictual or cooperative policies regarding different issues, including relations with the US, depends on the ongoing construction of identity in discourse by Chinese society.