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.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
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.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

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