In the past 25 years, China’s citizens have become more liberal, materialistic and wealthy. This change in social and political ideologies is not reflected in the politics of the Chinese Communist Party.
However, an in-depth study of the 6th cohort of the World Values Survey (WVS) via its online analysis tool shows that for the first time Chinese citizens are more liberal than ever before, displaying unprecedented and diverse political values.
Interestingly, the majority of Chinese now prioritize protecting the environment even at the expense of economic growth. They also believe fighting inflation is more important than traditional beliefs on spending for national defense and uninhibited economic competition.
The WVS, originally designed by political scientist and modernization theory pioneer Ronald Inglehart, measures the values and views of citizens in over 200 countries. Released every five years, it comprehensively measures how citizens feel towards socioeconomic and political problems.
This year the survey was released in May. Comparing the 6th cohort’s survey results with the first survey released in 1990 sheds light on how China’s economic growth has affected citizens’ at the individual level.
In 1990, 66 percent of citizens believed that the country’s national priority should be economic growth. Another 19 percent of citizens prioritized strengthening China’s military. By 2014 only 47 percent of citizens put economic growth first, though prioritizing military capabilities had increased three points to 22 percent.
When asked by WVS researchers what their aim for society was, 66 percent of Chinese citizens in 1990 answered that they wanted to “protect social stability and order.” By 2013 that number had fallen to just 27.2 percent.
Instead, 52 percent of Chinese citizens stated that “fighting inflation” was their biggest concern in 2014. These changing values are reflected in other social issues such as pollution, education, economic inequality, and philanthropy as well.
Meanwhile, 56.6 percent of citizens surveyed by the WVS stated that in the next ten years China’s priority should be “protecting the environment, even at the expense of economic growth.”
So, if post-modern, liberal values similar to those that exist in traditionally democratic societies also exist in China, why isn’t there more outrage at the government over existing social issues?
To understand this phenomenon we have to consider respondents’ answers to the World Values Survey, and their sense of individual agency.
While most citizens were willing to sacrifice economic growth to environmental protection, 98 percent of citizens surveyed stated that they were not part of any charitable or philanthropic groups.
Moreover, when asked to pick between NGOs, the government and private enterprise, more than half of the respondents stated that it was the responsibility of the government to fix China’s pollution problem.
Perhaps individual Chinese feel less empowered than their Western counterparts, but it is worth pointing out that the number of protests advocating for improved social conditions has increased dramatically in China over the past ten years.
This fits with Inglehart’s theory that citizen dissatisfaction increases as countries develop. However, Inglehart postulates that as citizens’ values become more liberal as a result of economic growth, they will only press for wide-sweeping political change if healthy social institutions exist.
As the WVS data and countless other reports show, widespread corruption and CCP policy continue to strangle faith in public and social institutions. Scandals such as the one involving the Red Cross Society of China haven’t helped China’s civic institutions either.
Nonetheless, the emerging widespread changes in Chinese citizens’ social, political and economic values are still important. These changes demonstrate the increasing generational diversity in Chinese society, as the educated, middle-class continues to grow.
The Chinese government has taken note of these changes in values. The campaign for a “Chinese Dream” is a response to citizens’ desire for a modern, liberalized lifestyle.
The current campaign ties the dream to an idea of national fulfillment rooted in Chinese history. The original speech by President Xi Jinping legitimizes the dream only insofar as it helps advance national prestige.
Even then citizens have interpreted the dream as a social concept rooted in individual happiness and economic fulfillment. Research from the Civil China project shows that 41 percent of netizens on Sina Weibo that mention the Chinese dream do so in a manner tied to a vision “for the people,” instead of “for the nation.”
This data is important, not because scholars should put China in a box ascribing “Western” or “fixed” values to its society, but rather because understanding how citizens’ values change within the economy sheds light on citizens’ future choices.
Consequently, how Chinese citizens view their role in a society grappling with social and economic problems, and how they address those problems, will continue to evolve.
Maryan Escarfullett is a graduate of SAIS’s Hopkins-Nanjing Center, where she recently completed her masters in international relations. For more information on her research or inquires about the article she can be reached at [email protected]