Another explanation for the Chinese public’s high level of confidence in the central government is Confucianism, which emphasizes hierarchy and obedience. Observers putting forth this argument contend that culturally the Chinese are simply accustomed to unconditionally accept political authority. Implicitly, then, the CCP’s performance has little bearing on the level of trust the Chinese people place in it.
This explanation also fails to pass muster. To begin with, if Confucianism does instill obedience to government, why don’t other Confucian societies like Taiwan place similarly high levels of trust in their governments? And Confucianism has been a mainstay of China for centuries, but China’s history is chock full of examples of the central government losing public support. It’s also worth noting that government leaders in China today certainly aren’t convinced that they can take public support for granted.
Indeed, one of the less noticed political realities in China is government responsiveness to public demand.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At first glance, it is counter-intuitive that an authoritarian government needs to respond to public opinion, since authoritarian leaders do not have to face any meaningful elections at the national level. However, our research demonstrates that an absence of meaningful national elections does not indicate an absence of public political demand. While it is true that, on average, satisfaction with the national government is high, it is by no means perfect, or monolithic. In fact, about 65 percent of the public in China reports at least some degree of dissatisfaction with the central government. This dissatisfaction appears to be “listened to” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which claims to represent the interests of “most” Chinese people.
Lacking elections as an effective yardstick to measure such representativeness, the CCP is paranoid about every single protestor on the street. While resorting to coercive methods whenever necessary, it also feels compelled to respond to public demand when possible. Thus, while media control, economic performance and cultural tradition are not entirely irrelevant, they are a relatively small part of the explanation for why political trust is so high in China. In fact, our ongoing analysis of more recent public opinion survey data suggests that such responsiveness accounts for more than 50 percent of the variation in political trust. In other words, government responsiveness is by far the most important reason for the high level of political trust in China.
This is not to say that China’s government model guarantees political stability despite lacking the institutional mechanisms of free and fair elections. Public sentiment is sensitive to major political events, such as a bad policy or the fall of a major leader. Public opinion can also quickly turn into public grievance, and regime legitimacy and political stability could be directly threatened as result. Indeed, we found that the major source of national government popularity (or lack of it), besides the trust factor itself, was policy performance. In particular, when the central government fails to deliver adequate local services, the public expresses increased dissatisfaction with it.
Wenfang Tang and Michael S. Lewis-Beck are professors of political science at the University of Iowa. Nicholas F. Martini is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Saint Thomas. They are the authors of “A Chinese Popularity Function: Sources of Government Support,” an article appearing in the December 2013 issue of Political Research Quarterly.