Do China’s Citizens Trust the People in Charge?

Some articles in the Chinese media say the leadership has lost credibility with its citizens (LIU JIN / Getty Images)

Several articles in the Chinese media are saying the leadership has lost its credibility with its citizens. Chinese experts say that the majority of the people have no trust or confidence in the authorities.

Here’s a summary from Chinascopeof quotes compiled from Chinese media:

… Today, the sentiment of ‘mistrust’ has penetrated into the very fabric of Chinese people’s lives: when we Chinese eat, we can’t trust the safety of our food; … when we go to the hospital, we can’t trust that the doctor won’t over-prescribe medication; when we go to court, we can’t trust that the judiciary system will make a just decision. …

… we can’t trust anything: what the local government’s say, media reports, the people next to us, and particularly ‘it has become the habit of most people to question whatever the government says.’

‘Some people say that due to the radioactive impact of the Japan earthquake, salt from a contaminated ocean will not be edible. Then the TV news tried to quash the rumor and said it would not impact the Mainland. However, the people on the Mainland have lost confidence in the government. Every time the government makes some high profile statement, it means the truth is exactly the opposite. Starting on March 16th, all salt in stores (in Shanghai) had completely sold out, and the next day even all of the soy sauce was gone…milk products contain melamine… glutinous rice wine includes preservatives, and Sudan Red was found in salted duck eggs. Didn’t the government deny all of it?  Yet these violations are real and are continuing today.’

Are the authorities in China losing credibility?

We spoke with Richard P. Madsen, Professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Here is what he told us over the phone:

I think this lack of trust has existed for some time now, for example the scandals about the tainted milk… have been going on for four or five years, and there are many other things like that. So people are used to being skeptical about official claims, about anything.

Besides of the official media there are all sorts of other kinds of media, for instance the Internet nowadays… So sometimes people trust those more than the official media.

Also within the media itself there are some media that are more willing to speak the truth than others. And people look for knowledge of what’s really going on through that. After all, the issue of the food safety was exposed in the end through certain aspects of the media in China, so you can find out what’s going on. Maybe too late but… Actually for generations people in China have developed skills of gleaning what’s really going on, from statements in the official media, and not taking the official statements as face value, but kind of digging beneath it and try to figure out what’s really going on. And I think they will continue to do that.

There really is an outrage about a lot of things in China. There are hundreds of thousands riots and things like that every year, at different levels of the society… that’s going on constantly and it could be explosive.

However I don’t see this kind of explosion taking place in the near term because it’s balanced by a general feeling that things are kind of moving forward economically. And the government is also quiet skilled at isolating and containing various kinds of dissent and keeping it from spreading.

Vent it down…

Professor Martin Whyte, from the department of sociology at Harvard University explains over the phone how the authorities keep it from spreading.

People feel that their lives are not as predictable as they would like, and that the rules aren’t being followed the same way they would like…

But research I have done and research others have done have shown that there is a strong gradient in feelings toward trust in the government in different levels. The people tend to have quite high levels of trust in the Central Government, but much lower levels of trust for the low level— particularly lower levels of government.

… the leadership at the very top works as hard as they can to try to reinforce this gradient, in other words, they try to stress to their population, ‘ your government at the top cares about you and we have wise policies, it’s only those corrupt, inefficient, inattentive corrupt people at the bottom that are supposed to be enforcing our policies that are not doing it well’. It’s seems to be relatively successful, in other words, instead of blaming the entire system, and particularly the leaders at the top, people tend to get angry with their local officials, and local private interests…

Can the higher levels make the lower levels do their job?

It varies from issue to issue. In some sense they have the capacity, if they made it a high priority.

…it’s often the case that local officials are told ‘you have to promote economic growth, you have to promote employment, don’t worry about pollution and don’t worry about these other things’.

In other words, as an outside observer, I would say that the central leadership deserves blame as well, but they do very good job of sort of absolving this self blame saying you know “we’re trying to make the system better” and most Chinese seem to agree with that.

When they [the people] feel that they have not been treated fairly they don’t automatically say ‘it’s the system that’s corrupt and unfair’. They tend to say ‘it’s a problem of implementation and enforcement’ and these are very standard responses in any authoritarian political system.

People who studied Russia before the Soviet Union talked about “if the Czar only knew” in other words, if only the Czar ruling all of Russia were aware with what’s going on with the “little guy” he would be concerned and he would set things straight. It’s a feature that authoritarian systems can make use of to try to maintain the legitimacy of the system itself, even if people are unhappy about a lot of things about how they’re treated in their daily lives.

In fact, because of this phenomenon, China is a very turbulent society today; there are a lot of protests, about local issues and against local leadership and against abuses of people and so forth. People don’t just sit back and accept it. …they are saying that they can’t get fair treatment from local officials by playing by the rules, so there for they have to take to the streets and to organize people and call attention to themselves…. But at the same time, they’re hoping to get favorable responses from the higher levels, and sometimes they do. There was a recent strike of truck drivers in the Shanghai area. They eventually ended up in getting some favorable actions about fuel prices and other kinds of things that were part of the demands that the protesters wanted.

One is the reason why it has been so relatively stable despite all this turbulence is clearly because of the fact that there is so much economic growth, with so much improvement in peoples’ material lives, that people are willing to give to the system as a whole, and its top leadership, the benefit of the doubt. So one question mark – can they maintain that growth?


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