The Debate | Opinion

COVID-19 and Trust in the Chinese Government: What Do We Actually Know?

We need to be cautious about survey data exploring the Chinese public’s attitudes toward their government.

By Allison Quatrini for
COVID-19 and Trust in the Chinese Government: What Do We Actually Know?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Does COVID-19 prove the superiority of Chinese authoritarianism? Recent discussion has centered on the link between citizens’ trust in the government and the containment of COVID-19 in several Asian countries. According to Rachel Kleinfeld, legitimacy is one factor that predicts success. Supporting this view, U.S. News and World Report cites a survey stating that more than 80 percent of the public in China trusts the government to care for their health.

The link between trust in the government and success in containing the virus seems plausible. If citizens trust the state, they will see its directives as reasonable and worth following. Thus, to the degree that Asian authoritarian political systems achieve greater legitimacy than liberal democratic counterparts, contrary to the assumption that such legitimacy requires the consent of the governed, then Asian authoritarian politics ought to be better positioned to handle public health crises. A deeper look into these measures, however, suggests this analysis is premature.

First, consider what is meant by the idea that Chinese citizens “trust” the government. To this end, we need to separate the central government and the local government. Research by political scientist Li Lianjiang over a period of more than a decade demonstrates that people in China tend to trust the central government rather than local authorities. Specifically, rural residents tend to believe that the central government has the best of intentions, but that it does not always have the capacity to carry out policies at the local level. Further research on Li’s part has illustrated that when Chinese citizens are confronted with wavering trust, they redefine what they mean by the central government so that they can remain confident. His more recent work, however, suggests that perhaps trust in the central government is not as strong as it originally appeared. In this sense, stating that Chinese citizens trust the government is painting with too broad a brush. We must therefore ask: which level of government and how might levels of trust have changed over time?

A closer look at the survey itself uncovers additional issues with what it means to trust the government. Kleinfeld uses the Edelman Trust Barometer to gauge the levels of trust that citizens place in their governments. The report mentions the following caveat on its findings: “Questions that afforded respondents the opportunity to criticize their government were not asked in Russia, China, or Thailand.” Political scientist Lily Tsai sheds light on why this might be the case, pointing out that merely conducting survey research in China is a politically sensitive endeavor. First, it is sensitive and high stakes for local officials, as survey research can be viewed as a measure of their performance. Second, because it is high stakes for officials, it is high stakes for citizens. They know their answers could have a negative impact. Given that it is dangerous to question or criticize the state, it makes sense to exclude such questions. Certainly, an institutional review board that authorizes surveys before researchers go into the field could find questions of that nature unethical, precisely because of the dangers they could pose. Even if those questions had been included, it is quite likely that many respondents would not have answered truthfully.

One may ask: why, then, did respondents answer other questions indicating a high level of trust in the government in the way that they did? They may have felt pressure to do so, which would lead to inaccurate results. Thus, even with a positive assessment of the government and in the absence of an opportunity to criticize the state, one cannot assume that this must equate to trust in the government. In short, just because people say they trust the government does not mean they really do, particularly in an authoritarian context.

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Second, Kleinfeld argues that there is a marked difference between voluntary compliance and government enforcement. There is some merit to this, but the question of how to discern that difference has troubled researchers for decades: how can one know why people are doing what they are doing? People may comply, but only out of fear. People may indeed comply voluntarily because they buy into what the state is doing. Moreover, there is a third alternative as well: people may comply but without buy-in. In this sense, when one witnesses diligent compliance with state orders in China, it is difficult to assign a motive.

It is tempting to consider a causal link between trust in the Chinese government and increased performance in containing the virus. Such a claim, however, is too general and may not be entirely trustworthy in the Chinese context. It is important to distinguish between levels of government, to consider the challenges of conducting survey research in China, and to think about how, and whether, we know the difference between voluntary and forced compliance.

Allison Quatrini is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Global Affairs at Eckerd College where her research focuses on ethnic minorities and their relationship with the Chinese party-state. She received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University in 2017.