By Chang Ping, published: October 1, 2015
“Why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?”
Can it be that 92.8% of Chinese poll respondents are truly satisfied with the Chinese central government, and that among these, 37.6% are “extremely satisfied”? For over a decade, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in collaboration with Horizon Research (零点调查公司) in Beijing, has been conducting polls on Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward their government. In the most recent poll, respondents’ satisfaction with the central government was at an all-time high. The New York Times described it as a “reliable” public opinion poll.
Xi Jinping’s crackdown on “tigers” (corrupt officials and big-time economic criminals) has garnered the support of many Chinese citizens angered by corruption, but it is now abundantly clear that the vaunted crackdown is in fact a political power struggle in the guise of an anti-corruption crusade. At the same time, we have seen a continued Chinese economic slump, nightmarish losses for private investors who bought into government predictions about rising Chinese stock values, skies over Beijing that are made blue only for special occasions such as the recent troops review, a significant tightening of controls over online speech, large-scale incarceration of government critics, and mass arrests of human rights lawyers. One really has to wonder: from whence do these supposedly “high levels of satisfaction” derive?
Even more paradoxically, respondents’ levels of satisfaction with the Chinese central government have remained consistently high in every such poll taken over the last decade, as Anthony Saich, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Ash Center, explained in an interview with the New York Times. In the two years since Xi Jinping assumed office, he has had a number of powerful rivals arrested: “security czar” Zhou Yongkang (周永康), whose former posts included chief of the China National Petroleum Corporation, secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee; Ling Jihua (令计划), ex-President Hu Jintao’s most trusted consigliere and the former head of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee; and generals Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (from 2002 and 2004, respectively.) In addition, Xi Jinping has sacked over 70 vice-ministerial or higher-level officials in various branches of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese central government, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and placed over 40 deputy- or higher-level officers in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (wujing) under disciplinary investigation. There are even rumors that Jiang Zemin, long at the center of collective CCP leadership, could find himself in peril. The current fight against corruption is undoubtedly a negation of the two previous administrations [of President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and President Hu Jintao (2003-2013)]. But how is it that Chinese poll respondents so consistently expressed a high level of satisfaction with those previous administrations? If respondents’ support for the current administration is simply a reaction to past corruption, how do we explain their sudden change of heart?
According to this year’s Ash Center-Horizon Research public opinion poll, respondents’ satisfaction with county, district, township, village and lower levels of government dropped to their lowest ebb since the poll began in 2003. Only 7.8% of respondents described themselves as “extremely satisfied” with their township-level government, while 47% said they were “relatively satisfied.” Professor Saich notes: “The hope remains for the central leaders that people continue to see the abuses as local aberrations and that the central government is still seen to be striving to work in their best interests. Local protests would thus be easier to contain.” This would also give Xi Jinping a broad base of public support for his anti-corruption campaign.
It is fair to say that this is exactly the kind of positive publicity the Chinese authorities want—poll results that can actually be broadcast on CCTV, China Central Television. I couldn’t help but wonder what difficulties the polling organizations in China and overseas would have faced had the results been different: would they have been able to publish the results so openly if their poll had shown that 92.8% of respondents were dissatisfied with the central government?
I do not mean to suggest that these polling organizations deliberately lied to curry favor with the Chinese government. I simply want to emphasize that, when analyzing and disseminating the results of such polls, we should recognize when the results are at odds with past and present realities, and endeavor to keep in mind the following question: why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?
Truthfulness in a Totalitarian Society
Some have noted that the Chinese phrase “Defend the emperor, regain supreme power, purge the courtiers, clean up the court” is a cultural tradition, while the phrase “Oppose corrupt officials, but not the Emperor” represents a kind of ancient wisdom. The main reason it is so difficult to do away with certain long-standing practices and abuses, I believe, is because they are being manipulated by real-world political power. Otherwise, how can we explain why Chinese society, supposedly so steeped in traditional culture, would allow its cultural relics, ancient texts, and long-standing tradition of respect for elders to be swept away en masse during the Chinese Cultural Revolution?
Let us imagine for a moment the same sort of public opinion poll being conducted in Cultural Revolution-era China, or in present-day North Korea: what would the results of such a survey be, and what conclusions could we draw from those results? I believe that respondents would report an even higher level of satisfaction with their central governments than in this recent poll. Although, as Professor Saich points out: “It [the Communist Party of China] has striven to render history in such a way that the party is the natural inheritor of Chinese tradition — a wild cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when the party was determined to undermine tradition and portrayed itself as representing a radical break with the past.”
What do we really mean when we talk about the truthfulness of a public opinion poll conducted in a totalitarian society? Although superficially, many areas of life in China seem quite open, it is one of only a handful of countries in the world where Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked; where all media is controlled by a powerful party propaganda department; where school textbooks are subject to stringent political censorship and filled with falsifications of history, a whitewashed version of the present, and exhortations to love the nation and the party. It is a country where Tibetans who receive a photo of the Dalai Lama via a Tencent messenger app are sentenced to prison; where Han Chinese who post Sina micro-blog messages in solidarity with Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” protesters are arrested for “picking quarrels and causing trouble”; where public intellectuals such as Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提), Gao Yu (高瑜) and many others are given harsh prison sentences—not for organizing any sort of “subversive” activities, but simply for voicing criticism.
This deliberately engineered system of news blockades, fear of information and educational brainwashing is not, as many imagine, some sort of absurd joke; rather, it is an extremely effective system of control. How can we expect ordinary people raised on a diet of such limited news to disbelieve pronouncements such as: “American imperialism still seeks to subjugate China” or “The Japanese are eyeing China greedily” or “Xi Jinping, with incorruptible integrity, is leading the Chinese people to a grand renaissance”? Naturally, many Chinese people remain dissatisfied with their government, but to them, is this not a simple problem of local government officials not properly following orders from above?
To appeal to members of the middle class who are striving for a better life and believe that they have the capacity for critical thinking, the Chinese propaganda machine has reinvented or co-opted certain theories – “autocracy is more conducive to economic development” and “Chinese society requires a unique model of governance” – that sound both fresher and more profound than century-old slogans about “fighting for freedom” or “building democracy.”
A Fear That Cuts to the Bone
Although they may be subject to brainwashing, the Chinese people are certainly no fools, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the relationship between the Chinese central and local governments. But fear of information causes most people to simply choose not to think, because thinking leads to understanding, and understanding only leads to trouble. Václav Havel once offered an analysis of why a greengrocer living in totalitarian Czechoslovakia would post a sign in his shop window reading: “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer, of course, did not really care whether the workers of the world were willing or able or even ought to unite. Therefore, to the greengrocer, the slogan was nothing more than a lie. Primarily, it was a lie that allowed him to feel safe. Secondly, the greengrocer was long accustomed to not caring what was “truth.”
Polling organizations will, of course, endeavor to protect the anonymity of poll respondents through the use of anonymous questionnaires and other means, but in a world where even the wealthiest and most influential global Internet corporations have capitulated to China’s “unique model of governance,” no one truly believes that the Chinese government will respect that anonymity or abide by the rules of the game. Writing something critical of China’s highest-ranking leaders – actually writing it down, in black and white – is a frightening thing for most Chinese people, a fear that cuts to the bone. This fear results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: “Why yes, I truly believe that my captors are bold and competent – not to mention handsome – and that they always have my best interests at heart!”
In similar opinion polls, citizens of western democratic nations typically reported much lower levels of satisfaction with their governments than did citizens of China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian nations. In even more totalitarian North Korea, it is simply not possible to conduct such a poll. That fact in itself might offer some explanation for the satisfaction gap. But recent polls in Germany and other democratic nations show that this gap is beginning to close, which also raises some puzzling questions. Some might ask: are German citizens’ high levels of satisfaction with their government the result of brainwashing? Or is it that German poll responses reflect an environment that allows freedom of speech and individual expression, while Chinese poll responses reflect an environment characterized by news blocking, fear of information, and educational brainwashing? To which I can only answer: yes, that is truly the case.
Also by Chang Ping:
中文原文《长平观察：什么政府咱都满意！》, translated by China Change