Perceptive readers will remember our China News of 7th July. In it we referred to the study undertaken over ten years by the Ash Centre of Harvard University. This shows how favourably Chinese citizens regard their Government. This has not featured in Western media: it does not fit the current anti-China agenda. It is highly significant, however. It dispels, once and for all, the notion of an ‘oppressed people’ living miserably under the ‘brutal, authoritarian’, Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
‘Understanding CCP Resilience’ is authoritative and balanced. Its authors, Edward Cunningham, Tony Saich, and Jessie Turiel, open with these words:
We find that…, since the start of the survey in 2003, Chinese citizen satisfaction with government has increased virtually across the board…. more marginalized groups in poorer, inland regions are … comparatively more likely to report increases in satisfaction.
The authors continue more cautiously:
While the CCP is seemingly under no imminent threat of popular upheaval, it cannot take the support of its people for granted…citizens’ perceptions of governmental performance respond most to real, measurable changes in individual’s material well-being….Citizens who praise government officials for effective policies may indeed blame them when such policy failures affect them or their family members directly.
The most striking feature of our survey’s data since 2003 is the near-universal increase in Chinese citizens’ average satisfaction toward all four levels of government.
In 2003, 86% of people expressed satisfaction with the central government. However, only 44% of people expressed approval of local governments. By 2016, approval with the central government, already high, had increased to 93%. Approval of local governments had increased even more dramatically to 70%. Interestingly, in democratic countries local leaders are nearly always more popular than central leaders.
These increases in satisfaction are not just limited to overall assessments of government performance. When asked about the specific conduct and attributes of local government officials, increasing numbers of Chinese citizens view them as kind, knowledgeable, and effective.
The figures speak for themselves. But the report’s authors are neither clear why approval is so high, nor whether this is sustainable. They try to explain both.
Chinese GDP per capita is 60 times greater than it was in 1978. In the early 2000’s wealth was very unevenly distributed. Most people living outside cities had little access to public health, social security or unemployment relief. In 2003, the Central Government therefore set about introducing a series of policy measures.
For example, between 2006 and 2011, the percentage of China’s population covered by health insurance more than doubled, from 43% to 95%. Also, by 2011, the central government’s expenditure on rural and agricultural issues had reached nearly three trillion yuan, ten times the same expenditure in 2004.
This seems to have worked. Between 2003 and 2016, low-income groups express a far greater increase in satisfaction than wealthier groups. Also, residents in inland regions (country districts mostly) show much greater increase in satisfaction than those living on the East coast.
Thus since 2003, increases in citizen satisfaction with government performance have been disproportionately concentrated amongst the more marginalized populations targeted by redistributive policy reforms.
China’s poorer residents find their government increasingly more effective at delivering what they want and need.
On corruption, one of the most serious problems Chinese citizens say they face, between 2009 and 2011, the government was rated poorly and satisfaction on this criterion fell. Since Xi Ziping became President and started the largest anti-corruption drive in China’s recent history, approval of government efforts rose from 35% in 2011 to 71% in 2016.
Finally, the report looks at pollution noting that China’s growth and then improvements to its citizens’ lives, has often been at the expense of the environment. Less than 1% of the population breathes air that is considered safe by the EU. One quarter of China’s rivers are ‘unsuitable for human contact”. In addition to air and water pollution, China suffers from extensive soil contamination, deforestation, desertification, and habitat loss.
Although the Chinese government has made real progress in recent years crafting policies to address these problems, environmental issues are still the number one cause of citizen complaints and mass protests in China.
Most citizens can tell quite accurately the levels of pollution in their neighbourhood. Pollution links to their overall life satisfaction: on good days they are happier than on bad days. Despite this, the survey shows that only 11% of Chinese residents have lodged a complaint about pollution. However, 47% say they might protest; 20% that they would protest. There is also an expectation that things will improve over the next five years.
….there is little evidence to support the idea that the CCP is losing legitimacy in the eyes of its people. In fact, our survey shows that, across a wide variety of metrics, by 2016 the Chinese government was more popular than at any point during the previous two decades.
There is no consensus about what constitutes good government. There is no agreement as to whether democracy is better than other forms of government. It is a matter of faith and especially, of culture. All governments are, rightly, held to task by their citizens.
The fact is that no democracy receives the approval rating the Chinese government enjoys today. That does not mean that the Chinese system is right and democracies are wrong. Nor does it mean that the Chinese government is without fault or blame for some of its policies and decisions.
What this survey shows however, is that, far from being the repressive and dictatorial regime from which Chinese people long to escape, the Chinese Communist Party receives wide respect and approval from its citizens.
This, surely, is the hallmark of good governance in any country.