Public Opinion In China

If China goes democratic, the world goes democratic. Because of its power, size, and the location, China is now the linchpin of global democratization. It is therefore important for American foreign policy and for those of us who comment on it to have a correct perspective on events in China. Wenfang Tang’s book on China, Public Opinion and Political Change in China (2005), is important in this regard. It is based on a 1999 Six-City-Survey and ten other surveys conducted by the Economic Reform Institute of China in the later 1980′s and early 1990′s. The 1999 survey was done on a stratified randomization sample.

Obviously, there will be a fear factor involved in questions that bear on the regime in some way. Tang believes this has been controlled for by the questions asked and their analyses. I’m not so sure, especially since members of the residential council, the lowest grassroots state-party unit for controlling the population, often took the interviewers to a household, introduced them to a family, and explained the interview. At one time, it was that the council that had to approve any travel, and even house guests, but that might have changed. I could not find anything to update their power and activities.

Anyway, the analysis is not only a percentage breakdown of answers and cross tabulations, but also involved factor analysis and the multiple regression of responses in terms of age, CCP membership, family income, socio-political attitudes, city, education, sex, and so on. These analyses were well done.

You may remember that I predicted that the CCP will be history in five-years. By context, I did not mean that China would then become democratic, but rather it would change significantly in a democratic direction. Do any of Tang’s findings cause me to change this prediction? Below is a summary of his conclusions (Quotation marks omitted), and those in line with my prediction are underlined:

Findings confirm that China’s Communist Party (CCP) clearly has a significant role in manipulating public opinion and in curbing mass political behavior. The party continued to control public opinion gathering, censor any open debate and criticism of the party’s legitimacy; and allow only parochial opinions to be voiced.

The CCP showed effectiveness in mobilizing popular support for the current party-state political system and official ideologies. This systemic impact also was reflected in rising political conservatism and a declining sense of political efficacy in the 1990′s. All these factors are consistent with the literature on Communist politics that emphasizes the negative consequences of political control.

Popular dissatisfaction with the cost of market reform was growing in China as the world moved toward democratization, yet support for China’s authoritarian political structure and for the party was still surprisingly high. While media control and censorship were never subtle, growing media diversification and consumption clearly increased public confidence in media and nurtured citizen initiated political participation, pro-Western feelings, a sense of political efficacy, and civic values.

Although China’s civil society was not based on participation in voluntary associations, interpersonal trust was unexpectedly high and led to liberal values just as it did in democratic societies. Even more interestingly, the CCP itself, while acting as a “dictator,” was showing signs of a voluntary association that bred interpersonal trust.

While direct and open challenges to the CCP were suppressed and the sense of political efficacy was declining in the 1990′s, voicing public opinion at the grassroots level was surprisingly common, and the channels for doing so became wider and more effective.

Although labor unions continued to function as an instrument of party control at the workplace, they served to protect workers’ welfare and job security and to facilitate solutions for labor disputes and employee participation in managerial decision making.

While most outside observers put their hope for China’s democratization in the hands of dissidents and non-party intellectuals, the findings clearly showed that demands for political change and liberalization were raised more consistently by intellectuals within the party itself.

There is no evidence of an increasingly rebellious public. In contrast, findings indicate that support for the regime and its legitimacy was growing in the 1990′s. An explanation for the political system’s decreasing effectiveness is the retreat of the CCP. Although the very foundation of the CCP cannot be challenged, over time it has actually reduced its efforts to control public opinion and behavior at the grassroots level.

In certain areas, economic growth and marketization are more important in shaping public opinion and mass political behavior in urban China than traditional values or even the authoritarian political system. Market reform polarized public opinion, dividing various groups based on how much they supported the regime and reform, as well as on how much they gained or benefited, or whether they were winners or losers.

In China, the paternalistic political tradition in the state-society relationship is still prevalent, except among a small group of party elite and political dissidents. It seems that outside pressure to speed up political reform is relevant only if one agrees that China’s current “modernization” mentality is a result of manipulation of public opinion by the elite. If the current public mood is instead a true reflection of the broader public need, advocating post-modern values at this point is unlikely to make a significant difference.

Chinese public opinion can be volatile. Changes in urban life since the mid-1990′s have been everything but gradual. Newspaper and television consumption exploded, growing more than tenfold from 1979 to 2002. Indeed, the public mood has experienced a great leap forward toward material consumption. Further, the volatility of public mood is also fueled by the massive restructuring of social interest during market reform, paired with the decline of central planning. The disappearance of the traditional social safety net and job security on one hand, and the growing income gap on the other, have stirred up many labor disputes and social tension. For example, income satisfaction among urban residents dropped from about 55% in May 1987 to around 15% in May 1989. This volatility in levels of public satisfaction represented a major challenge to continued economic reform and political stability during the 1989 urban protest.

One has to wear very large blinders not to see any improvement in the mechanisms that link public opinion and government decision making, including the recent development in implementing rural and urban local elections, the growing importance of the legal system, the rising political activism of the media, and the increased responsiveness of the government ombudsman system. The party’s effort to mobilize citizens through the media has resulted in an increase in autonomous political participation and a sense of political efficacy. Party intellectuals, a group more frequently exposed to political mobilization, have turned out to demand more political opening up than others.

Public opinion in 1989 was anticorruption and anti-market reform, with a weak desire for democracy and freedom. From these facts, we know that the 1989 urban protests were not primarily a pro-democratic movement. This interpretation is different from the one based on the highly visible Statue of Liberty and the slogan “Give me liberty or give me death.” Yet, these findings were drawn from a more solid empirical foundation than either the sculpture or the slogan (which was printed on a poster in China in 1989).

Although sporadic and rare, public protests can be effective in changing decision making and forcing the government to compromise.

Sometimes a protest may not indicate a crisis of the party’s legitimacy. In some areas, the CCP is playing the role of a mediator, letting interest groups confront each other rather than fight against the state itself.

It is difficult to imagine that any regime, democratically elected or not, can sustain itself for very long without considering public opinion. The Chinese rulers, long before the invention of modern elections, compared public opinion to the river and the state to the boat — a boat that, if misguided, could easily be overturned. Thus, there is this new emphasis by the CCP on public opinion surveys.

Related Link

“China’s first Cultural Revolution museum exposes Mao’s war on ‘bourgeois culture’”:

The frightened figure in the picture is a Chinese opera star. His hair is grasped tightly in a Red Guard’s fist and he is being denounced during the Cultural Revolution, the ideological frenzy which destroyed millions of lives in China between 1966 and 1976.

RJR: This is a private museum displaying in pictures the horrors of this period, and the CCP permitted it to be set up.

“The Dark Side of China’s Rise” By Minxin Pei:

China’s economic boom has dazzled investors and captivated the world. But beyond the new high-rises and churning factories lies rampant corruption, vast waste, and an elite with little interest in making things better. Forget political reform. China’s future will be decay, not democracy.

“Me and the Internet.”  By Liu Xiaobo:

Today, there are more than 100 million Internet users in China. . . . in recent years, the Internet has vastly brought out the awakening of ideas about rights and the defense of civil rights among the Chinese people.  This caused the current government to become worried.  They have placed great importance on controlling speech and blocking information on the Internet in order to exert ideological control.  They invested huge amounts of capital on the Golden Shield project and hired many Internet police.  They used economic incentives to force the western Internet companies in China to cooperate with their Internet control. Yet, insofar as my personal experience is concerned, the effect of the Internet in improving the state of free expression in China cannot be underestimated.  Even under the present reality with increasingly severe censorship and more cases of persecution for expression, the Internet has still helped the mainland people greatly.


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