In connection to the South Korean government’s decision to deploy a missile defense system in 2016, and the Taiwan government’s refusal to recommit to a “one-China” line that same year, Beijing applied economic pressure against Seoul and Taipei by restricting tourism and symbolically important exports. These informal sanctions persisted even though the targeted governments did not alter their policies. We argue that China may be playing a longer game through the cultivation of Chinese consumers to serve foreign policy goals. A history of domestic mobilization via state propaganda coupled with a growing middle class, which has fueled rapid expansion of consumerism and tourism, has enabled Beijing to capitalize on the market power of its domestic consumers as a tool of economic statecraft. In this paper, we examine how consumer mobilization was used in the South Korea and Taiwan cases. Patriotic consumerism simultaneously manages domestic public sentiment while harnessing it for China’s foreign policy interests. Consumer mobilization lends Beijing plausible deniability in its actions but gives it room to back down without appearing to concede. It also builds up a longer-term reputation of coercive capacity that could induce other countries to preemptively concede to Beijing’s demands. This points to a more sophisticated and ambitious approach to economic statecraft through the mobilization of patriotic consumers.
Research conducted by: Audrye Wong (with Leif-Eric Easley and Hsin-wei Tang)
Audrye Wong is a Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, with additional postdoctoral affiliations at the Brookings Institution and at the An Wang China and the World Program at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. She received her PhD in Security Studies from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Audrye’s research examines when and how states can translate their material capabilities into geopolitical influence, particularly through the use of non-military tools, with a substantive focus on China's foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. Her current book project examines the strategies and effectiveness of economic statecraft. Previously, Audrye was a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She earned her BA in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, with a minor in Translation and Intercultural Communication.