Harvard survey finds Chinese satisfaction with govt rises

China Daily Published: 2020-07-18 10:03:35

A farmer harvests rice in Ji'an, Jiangxi province, in July, 2020. [Photo: CFP]

A farmer harvests rice in Ji’an, Jiangxi province, in July, 2020. [Photo: CFP]

A Harvard University survey has found that Chinese citizens’ satisfaction with government has increased virtually across the board, with the central authorities receiving the strongest level of approval, increasing from 86 percent to 93 percent between 2003 and 2016, the period of the study.

Grassroots officials were also rated far more as “problem solvers” and “concerned with the difficulties of ordinary people” and far less as “beholden to the wealthy” and “only concerned about their own interests” by the end of the study, which was released last week by Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The landmark report, “Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time”, presents responses that sometimes surprised its researchers and shed light on the close rapport between the Communist Party of China and the people in the world’s second-largest economy.

‘Near-universal increase’

This is the longest academic study of Chinese public opinion ever conducted by a research institution based outside China. It involved in-person interviews with more than 31,000 individuals in urban and rural areas and used “the most objective and quantitative methods” currently available, according to the report’s authors, led by Ash Center China Programs Director Edward Cunningham.

“The most striking feature of our survey’s data since 2003 is the near-universal increase in Chinese citizens’ average satisfaction toward all four levels of government,” the researchers said, referring to governments at township, county, province and central levels.

For example, in 2016, the last year the survey was conducted, 93.1 percent of respondents were either “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the central government, representing a rise of 7 percentage points from 2003.

In contrast, Americans who responded they were satisfied with the federal government ranged from 39 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2016, according to Gallup polls.

Contrary to what researchers observe in the United States, where lower-level governments usually gain more trust than the federal government does, the Harvard survey found that in China in 2003, township governments, the lowest level of government examined, got the approval of only 44 percent of respondents, just about half of the approval rating for the central government.

The number, however, had drastically improved by 2016, with 70 percent approving.

“I think citizens often hear that the central government has introduced a raft of new policies, then get frustrated when they don’t always see the results of such policy proclamations, but they think it must be because of malfeasance or foot-dragging by the local government,” Ash Center Director Tony Saich was quoted as saying in a Harvard Gazette report on Thursday.

Saich and Jesse Turiel, a China Energy postdoctoral fellow at the Ash Center, were also the authors of the survey report.

The increase in satisfaction goes beyond the overall assessment of government performance. When asked about the specific conduct and attributes of local government officials, increasing numbers of Chinese citizens view them as “kind”, “knowledgeable” and “effective”, according to the survey.

In addition to the public’s assessment of the Chinese government and officials, the survey sought to examine public opinion on the three key policy areas of public service provision, corruption and the environment.

As a result, the survey finds that low-income residents and people in inland regions showed much greater increases in satisfaction than high-income residents and those living along China’s eastern coastline.

Both findings are far stronger at the local level, which researchers said makes sense because it is local governments that are primarily responsible for basic services.

The responses from survey participants in rural areas surprised the researchers, according to the Harvard Gazette report.

“We did not anticipate how quickly both low-income citizens and people from less-developed regions in China closed the satisfaction gap with high-income citizens and people from the coastal areas,” it quoted Cunningham as saying.

‘Positive direction’

These findings suggest that, far from representing a “dangerous undercurrent” of social and political resentment, China’s poorer residents feel that government is increasingly effective at delivering basic healthcare, welfare and other public services, noted the report.

“Ultimately, while Chinese citizens still identify significant problems such as persistent income inequality and job insecurity, the majority believe that things are moving in a positive direction and credit the government for improvements in their material well-being,” it said.

As to public opinion on corruption, Chinese citizens were generally supportive of the country’s anti-corruption efforts, the Harvard survey finds. While just 35.5 percent of respondents approved of government efforts to fight corruption in 2011, that figure had jumped to 71.5 percent by 2016, according to the survey.

“Even on the issue of the environment, where many citizens expressed dissatisfaction, the majority of respondents expected conditions to improve over the next several years,” the report said.

Interestingly, the survey found that three-quarters of Chinese respondents believe that climate change is real and caused by human behavior, and nearly 70 percent support enacting a nationwide emissions tax, far higher percentages than found in the US.

In conclusion, the Harvard survey said that for each of the key policy areas, China’s poorer, noncoastal residents expressed equal, if not even greater, confidence in the actions of government than more privileged residents.

“Our survey shows that, across a wide variety of metrics, by 2016 the Chinese government was more popular than at any point during the previous two decades,” it said.

The survey noted that citizens’ perceptions of governmental performance correlate most to real, measurable changes in individuals’ material well-being, and that satisfaction and support must be consistently reinforced.

This could be a “double-edged sword” for governments at all levels, it added.

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