Nationalist sentiment surged but widespread disappointment soon set in. “I can’t believe it! I was about to celebrate the unification with Taiwan by force,” a Weibo user wrote on Wednesday. “China is strong enough to do so. Isn’t it?” The comment was in response to Beijing’s apparently muted reaction to a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , the highest-ranking US official to visit the island since 1997. Before and after the visit, Beijing issued stern warnings and threats, suspended some Taiwanese imports and embarked on live-fire drills around the island. But given the earlier drumbeating state and social media commentaries, the public had expected more than propaganda outrage and sabre-rattling. So much so that on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on the public to be “rational patriots” and trust in Beijing’s ability to “firmly defend sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Observers said that while the Communist Party and the Chinese government had been adept at tapping nationalism to rally domestic support, the rising sentiment could run out of control and backfire. A mainland-based political scientist said nationalism had made it difficult for Beijing to be flexible in handling the Pelosi visit. “It’s a double-edged sword,” the researcher said, declining to be named because of his university’s tightened interview rules ahead of the party’s 20th national congress this autumn. “If not reined in, it will derail China’s diplomatic agenda and influence foreign policy towards the United States, Europe and other Western countries.” The patriotic sentiment of the country’s population is frequently cited as justification for Beijing’s opposition to Taiwanese independence. President Xi Jinping referred to it as recently as last week in a phone call with his US counterpart Joe Biden, saying that defending sovereignty and territorial integrity was the “firm will of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. “The public opinion cannot be defied,” the Chinese foreign ministry quoted Xi as saying to Biden. “ If you play with fire, you will surely perish by it .” That sentiment was on show on Tuesday when State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that Pelosi was “making an enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people” and “would come to no good end”. It had also been apparent online in the days leading up to those meetings. On July 20, outspoken former editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times Hu Xijin told his 24 million followers on Weibo and 510,000 followers on Twitter that it was time for some tough action. “My suggestion to Chinese government and military: If Pelosi visits Taiwan, PLA military aircraft will accompany Pelosi’s plane to enter the island, making a historic crossing of the island by military aircraft from mainland for the 1st time. Its significance would overwhelm Pelosi’s visit,” Hu tweeted. He followed up the next day saying the mainland’s response to Pelosi’s visit would be unprecedented and “will involve a shocking military response”. Then on July 29, a day after the Xi-Biden phone call, he ramped up the rhetoric again. “If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down.” The tweet was later deleted. A Twitter notice says it violated the platform’s rules. The deletion did not deter others. Several articles circulating on WeChat on Tuesday suggested people should stay up and witness the historic moment of “the unification with Taiwan by force”. But there were also public critics of the war talk. Chairman Rabbit, the social media handle of Harvard University-educated princeling Ren Yi, slammed Hu for hyping public expectations and leaving Beijing in a difficult position. Ren said on his WeChat account that Hu’s personal judgment misled public opinion and contributed to a publicity “accident” in which Beijing’s response to the visit was not met with the “boiling feeling of patriotism” online. Asean urges restraint as China holds war games after Pelosi’s Taiwan trip He said that rather than feeling China’s “huge positive energy”, the public was left disappointed, dismayed or with dented confidence in the government. However, other observers said the government should also reflect on its actions to avoid being hijacked by nationalism in the future. “For a decade, Chinese authorities and state media have been building up confidence by exaggerating China’s strength, which helped form illusions among the public,” the mainland-based political scientist said. “The government should evaluate China’s status objectively, instead of bragging about its industrial, technological and military strength.” Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University politics lecturer, said increasing nationalistic sentiment might affect China’s intention to ease tensions with the US and other Western countries.