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.
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Last month, for example, when a North Korean plane, apparently piloted by a defector, crashed in China, photos of the wreck with distinctive North Korean insignia on its tail appeared on the Web within hours – yet for two days official media said its origins were unknown.Skip to next paragraph
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Internet use is an indicator of trust, says Song Houze, research manager at Unirule. "The lower a person's level of Internet use, the less that person thinks the government needs supervising," says Mr. Song.
The number of Internet users has skyrocketed in China, from 103 million five years ago to 420 million today. Sixty percent of them are under 30, according to the official numbers. And a lot of them now take for granted the economic prosperity for which their parents are so grateful.
"Public demands for more political rights and civil liberty tend to increase rapidly once socioeconomic development reaches high levels," points out Wang Zhengxu, a researcher at the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University in England, in a 2005 study of China's "critical citizens."
That leads to "value changes that result in distrust of government," he adds, and "this effect is starting to manifest itself in China."
But, he says, "it is still premature to expect a widespread rise of critical citizens, as the rapid rate of economic development is producing high levels of satisfaction among a still predominantly materialist public that has only recently emerged from subsistence-level poverty."
While most Chinese citizens' trust in their government appears to be based on its economic performance, it is far from certain that China will be able to maintain indefinitely its decade-long growth rates of more than 10 percent a year.
As expectations grow, that could pose problems. Dissatisfaction with income is at a record high – 69 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Economic System Reform Institute in Beijing. The last time it approached that level was in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen protests.
For the time being, though, argues Tang Wenfang, a professor of politics at the University of Iowa, this does not pose a critical threat to the government in Beijing.
Anger directed locally
"The problem is local," he says. "There are thousands of protests every year, but the government is stable because the protests are overwhelmingly against local governments."
"People tend to attribute bad policies to local governments, because they are the ones enforcing them," adds Dr. Shan. "And they observe corruption in local officials but they don't know what is going on at higher levels."
In the short run, Professor Tang writes in the journal Asian Politics and Policy, China's government can count on traditional values and propaganda to bolster public trust. But, he suggests, "the most reliable way to maintain institutional trust lies in the continued improvement of institutional performance."
But, Tang says, if the government neglects this task, or if the economy slows, China is "a highly charged society, filled with anger, conflict, and tension. Any misstep could escalate the problems and cause the public to confront Beijing."