Why do some Chinese cities take part in waves of nationalist protest but not others? Nationalist protest remains an important but understudied topic within the study of contentious politics in China, particularly at the subnational level. Relative to other protests, nationalist mobilization is more clustered in time and geographically widespread, uniting citizens in different cities against a common target. Although the literature has debated the degree of state-led and grassroots influence on Chinese nationalism, we argue that it is important to consider both the propensity of citizens to mobilize and local government fears of instability. Analysing an original dataset of 377 anti-Japanese protests across 208 of 287 Chinese prefectural cities, we find that both state-led patriotism and the availability of collective action resources were positively associated with nationalist protest, particularly “biographically available” populations of students and migrants. In addition, the government's role was not monolithically facilitative. Fears of social unrest shaped the local political opportunity structure, with anti-Japanese protests less likely in cities with larger populations of unemployed college graduates and ethnic minorities and more likely in cities with established leaders.