Chinese citizens do not feel they are being monitored or censored by the government as much as many of their counterparts in democratic countries do.
That’s one of the major, counterintuitive conclusions found in a recent cross-country poll conducted by GlobalScan on behalf of the BBC World Service.
The poll surveyed 17,000 people across 17 countries on issues relating to government surveillance, media and internet freedom, as while as other social and political liberties. Across a great many issues the poll found that people living in liberal democracies often feel more constrained by their governments than do people living in autocracies. For example, the poll noted that “majorities of Americans (54 percent) and Germans (51 percent) do not feel free from government surveillance, while in contrast, strong majorities feel free of surveillance in countries such as China (where 76 percent say they feel free of surveillance), Indonesia (69 percent) and Russia (61 percent).”
Chinese in particular feel they enjoy a large degree of freedom from the Chinese government in many of the areas the poll asked about. For example, the 76 percent of Chinese who say they feel free from government surveillance was a higher proportion than the pollsters found in any of the other sixteen countries included in the survey. It was also 16 percent higher than the average of all the countries
Similarly, only 5 percent of Chinese respondents say that their national media—which is run and tightly controlled by the Chinese government—is not free. By contrast, 69 percent of South Koreans believe that their media is not free, as do 28 percent of Americans. Still, less than a majority (47 percent) of Chinese respondents say that their national media is free, while the remaining 44 percent take a neutral stance on the issue.
Chinese views on internet freedom are no less perplexing. On the one hand, 45 percent of Chinese believe that the internet is a safe place to express their opinions openly. While 51 percent of Chinese say the internet is not a safe place to freely express their views, this still outranks countries like the United States where 65 percent of respondents say they do not feel the internet is a safe place to express their views, with just 33 percent arguing that it is. Similarly, 63 percent of Australians and 72 percent of South Koreans say that the internet is not a safe place to express themselves freely. These findings are particularly surprising in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s recent and very public campaigns to crackdown on internet users.
Despite the belief that they can express themselves openly online, Chinese citizens are far less likely to believe that the internet has greatly enhanced their freedom compared with their counterparts in many other countries, including in nations where respondents said it was not safe to express their views freely online. When asked whether the internet has given them more freedom, only a slim majority of 51 percent of Chinese respondents say that it has, while 45 percent believe that it has not. This stands in contrast to other nations like the United States and Canada (where 72 percent believe the internet has made them freer), Australia (77 percent) and South Korea (65 percent).
It’s hard to know what to make of these findings, and one has to be careful not to place too much importance on any one poll. Still, it seems reasonable to conclude that the information leaked by Edward Snowden has played a role in the general drop pollsters found in the United States on many of these issues when compared to a similar survey from 2007.
As for China, it’s hard to know how much of the views can be attributed to different expectations Chinese have about freedom when compared to their counterparts in democratic countries, and how much of their answers are attributable to general ignorance about the Chinese government’s surveillance and censorship. I suspect both factors probably play a role but that the former is likely more important.