By Andrew Small

In thinking about which powers will sustain – or threaten – the liberal order, China is typically written off as a spoiler. But as China’s public assumes greater influence over its foreign policy in the years ahead, this should not be taken for granted. Despite being portrayed as foaming-mouthed nationalists, Chinese public opinion has proved itself to be more liberal on some issues even than that of the Western powers.

Many, including on this blog, argue that in building a liberal coalition, energy is more usefully expended on the rising democratic powers than on the authoritarians’ best friend and chief exemplar. But over the long-term the Chinese public will also have a crucial role to play in determining which vision of international order wins out. Engaging, influencing, and simply taking account of it is an essential task.

The weight that public opinion plays in shaping Chinese foreign policy is already growing more significant. But it is most frequently invoked in cases where demands for a more assertive and less conciliatory stance towards the United States, Japan, Vietnam, India and others are its main characteristic. However challenging they find these pressures, Chinese officials have generally been happy to play up this strand in the opinions of their public, whether in arguing that they are “boxed in” when it comes to dealing with territorial disputes or simply to emphasize the dangers to the world of a more democratic Chinese political system.

Yet there are other views that Beijing has been less keen to emphasize. Humanitarian intervention, for instance, is usually one of the cleanest dividing lines between the liberal and the illiberal powers. While the Western camp has agonized over the legitimacy and scope of interventions over the years, it is a subject on which the Chinese government has given a pretty consistent answer – no. But it is far from clear that the Chinese people agree.

In a poll conducted in 2006 – at the peak of debates over Darfur – respondents were asked whether the UN Security Council “has the responsibility to authorize the use of military force to protect people from severe human rights violations, such as genocide,” even against the will of the government committing the abuses. Of the countries polled, by far the highest levels of support came from China, on 76%, with only the U.S. public coming close.

More recently, following the Chinese-Russian joint veto in February against UN action on Syria, opinion on Chinese microblogs and informal online surveys ran substantially against Beijing’s stance. A Weibo poll asked users: “The Chinese representative vetoed the resolution on Syria proposed by the Arab League. Does this decision represent you?” Seventy-seven percent voted “No.” Chinese public opinion has also for a long time been skeptical of China’s one-sided North Korea policy, and many Chinese netizens argued forcefully for intervention in Myanmar during the Kokang crisis in 2009.

There is nothing intrinsically inconsistent about a public that would, inter alia, support a more assertive defense of Chinese territorial claims, is fed up with the Chinese indulgence of North Korea, would like to see the Chinese government do more – including militarily – to protect its citizens abroad, and does not believe that China should provide unequivocal backing to mass murderers. Chinese citizens have rising expectations of how China should exercise its role as a great power, and its more assertive and nationalistic voices are often those with more robust views on issues of intervention than government officials who hold on to more defensive norms of sovereignty. The total package is not necessarily a comfortable one to deal with, but it is certainly not the cynical, illiberal China that has been a familiar interlocutor for the West in the UN Security Council in recent years.

Of course, for now, whatever the state of Chinese public opinion on an issue such as massacres in Syria, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) interest in defending authoritarian friends and principles will still tend to dominate. But over the longer term, a more authentic reflection of the views of the Chinese public in its foreign policy is inevitable. While no one is betting on any rapid democratization, the events of this year – from Bo Xilai to Chen Guangcheng – are embryonic indicators of a political transformation that few expect will leave power structures in Beijing looking the same in 2030 as they do today.

Engaging with Chinese public opinion cannot wait for large-scale political change, however. Actions that the United States and other powers take in the coming years will have a profound effect in determining whether a Chinese polity emerges that is comfortable with its place in the world, accepting of the legitimacy of the structures of global order, and capable of giving rein to its more magnanimous and humanitarian instincts.

For the most part, this does not mean much more than taking active account of China’s views and interests while being cognizant that these are not always the same as the views and interests of the CCP. The Syria veto was a good example of an instance where the Chinese government was unable to convince its own people that Western – and Arab – initiatives were illegitimate, rather than its own regressive position.

The United States should be ready to occupy and emphasize this gap when possible rather than enabling the illiberal instincts of the CCP to be consistently portrayed as reflective of Chinese opinion as a whole. The task of building a framework with the existing and emerging democracies that can influence China’s strategic choices is certainly a vital one for the liberal order. But so is dealing effectively with the complex spectrum of voices in China itself.

Andrew Small is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.