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Linda Liang

Nationalism is a powerful force in China – one that, once mobilized, can serve the government’s purposes. As EU member states weigh up their decision on Huawei, the possibility of a backlash by Chinese consumers has to be considered. Could the Chinese government let loose a retaliation from the bottom up? Linda Liang weighs up the odds. 

Huawei sign

In recent months, European countries have come under increasing pressure to include Huawei in their 5G networks as Chinese ambassadors across the continent, from Berlin to Paris and the Faroe Islands, have issued veiled threats of economic retaliation. These are not taken lightly – Chinese markets and consumers matter to European economies, as China’s lockdown in response to CoViD-19 has made clear. Could the Chinese government decide to ratchet up the pressure by indulging consumers who boycott European products?

The Chinese government has used this card before. In the run up to the Olympic Games in 2008, the pro-Tibet stance taken by activists and local governments in France riled Chinese patriots so much that consumers decided to boycott French retailer Carrefour in protest. Tensions were only eased after multiple efforts by France’s central government. Politically motivated grassroot boycotts also followed the deployment of American anti-missile technology THAAD to South Korea in 2017. Anti-South Korean sentiment was directed at the supermarket chain Lotte Mart, with repercussions still felt in bilateral relations today.

Apparently spontaneous expressions of nationalism such as these are very useful for Beijing. It is an argument that researchers such as associate professor of government at Cornell University Jessica Chen Weiss have been following for years. Whereas a Chinese state-led ban would provoke accusations of protectionism, a popular backlash is more like a high-pressure pot – the government would do little more than lift the lid and let it boil over, seeming to be helplessly standing back as patriotic consumers defend their “national champion”. Indeed, it is easy to see how the Chinese government could claim its hands are tied in such cases. After all, it has increasingly built its legitimacy on the back of nationalism. Beijing would undermine itself if it took action against nationalist sentiment.

European economies are vulnerable to a popular backlash from China

European economies are particularly susceptible to the threat of a popular backlash from China. While other countries like Australia have excluded Huawei from their 5G networks, their trade with China is primarily based on resources such as iron ore, metals and gold. In 2017, these and all mineral products made up over 85% of Australian exports to China. European trade with China, by contrast, is far more consumer-based, with cars and motor vehicles making up over 20% of exports in 2018.  

However, if China decided to let patriotic consumers vent their anger against foreign trade partners, this would sure increase tensions. Japan has already decided to ban Huawei from public procurement, but their mistrust of China is so great that a popular protest would be unlikely to make them waver.  

By the same token, the Chinese government should have an interest in keeping relations with European countries friendly. Economically, the EU is China’s second largest trading partner – in 2018 it imported US$465 bn worth of goods, making up 3.42% of China’s GDP that year. Indeed, against the background of rising tensions with the US, it might seem sensible for Beijing to tread carefully in its relations with Europe.

So far, there is no united front for Huawei on Chinese social media

What’s more, the question arises whether a ban on Huawei would be enough to incite real, tolerated or orchestrated, political action from the bottom up. Previous instances of Chinese consumer boycotts usually concerned China’s national sovereignty. While Huawei does receive a lot of cheering on Chinese social media, debates on Weibo about whether European countries will ban Huawei go in a different direction: either Europe is ridiculed for falling behind, or the US is blamed for bullying. Nor is there a united front on Weibo for Huawei – a substantial number of users root for other Chinese brands when decisions about Huawei are publicized, or criticize the company for exploiting its Chinese employees. There are frequent references to the “251” scandal, in which a former longtime Huawei employee was wrongfully detained for eight months.

Of course, the Chinese government could attempt to orchestrate an ad hoc popular protest through state media. But that would undermine the credibility of its claim that it has little to no control over grassroots sentiment. It seems far more likely that popular nationalism will only be instrumentalized for foreign policy purposes if it is a genuine wave that the Chinese government can ride – and that, at present, does not exist.  

For now, at least, China’s pressure on European countries is likely to come from its embassies, rather than Chinese consumer protests. The relevant actors in Beijing might take into consideration that unleashing popular collective action could do more damage than good to the economy – or unleash social forces that will be hard to control.

About the author:

Linda Liang is a BA student at the University of Heidelberg, where she majors in Political Science and Sinology. Her thesis project is focused on protests, or the absence of protests, in China in the context of the US-China trade conflict. She is an intern in the Foreign Relations Program at MERICS from January until the end of March 2020.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.