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China's public opinion gap: Chinese youth are starting to mistrust Beijing

Economic success has kept China calm and public opinion high. But trust in government is eroding just as demands on Beijing for more political rights are likely to rise.

By Staff writer / September 15, 2010

Women use laptops at a Beijing cafe. Rising suspicion of government may be a function of increased access to sources of information on the Internet. One expert says that as one’s Internet use goes up, one’s belief that government needs no oversight goes down.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images



One recent evening, a 20-something Chinese woman was watching the TV news here with her mother. A spokesman for the Health Ministry was denying allegations that contaminated milk powder had caused premature sexual development in baby Chinese girls, and reassuring viewers government tests found the powder safe.

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"That's a relief," said the mother. Her daughter reacted differently. "What do you mean?" she asked. "If the government says it's safe, that's a good enough reason to think it probably isn't."

A series of recent Chinese and international studies show that the Chinese government is finding it increasingly difficult to inspire trust among the younger generation, born after the country launched its economic reform program 30 years ago. These are the people on whom China's future, and future Chinese governments, will depend.

At first glance, the Chinese government appears to enjoy very high public trust: A series of surveys by international scholars over the past decade suggest that at least 70 percent of ordinary citizens express confidence in the government and ruling Communist Party – a level that Western rulers can only dream of.

Scholars variously attribute this to historical Chinese respect for authority, or to the one-party state's expertise at mobilizing political support through propaganda, and to many Chinese feeling that the government has done a good job – especially at raising living standards.

A breakdown of who's suspicious

But a new study from the independent Unirule Institute of Economics found that Chinese under age 25 are consistently more dubious of the authorities than their elders.

Mistrust also appears to run more deeply among the most wealthy, urban, and edu­cated citizens here. "These are the groups of the future," says Shan Wei, an analyst with the East Asian Institute at the National Uni­ver­sity of Singapore. "The authorities are going to be facing stronger and stronger challenges from the population."

Asked whether local government can be trusted to do its job without public oversight, for example, only 29 percent of those over 25 said officials needed supervision, compared with 38 percent of those under 25.

Yu Hua, a well-known Chinese author who believes that a lack of trust is at the root of many of his country's problems, puts rising suspicions down to availability of information.

"My son hears my wife and I talk about what's wrong with the government, and he hears his teachers criticize the government," says Mr. Yu. "That never happened when I was a boy."

Yu's son also has the Internet. "I'm sure that reinforces mistrust of the government, because, on the Web, information reaches the public immediately," often long before official sources carry it, Yu adds.