What We Don’t Know About China

Jun 2, 2009 10:11am

What’s most interesting about public opinion in China, 20 years after Tiananmen Square, is what’s not asked there.

Think about, say, confidence in the national government, elections, the military and the judicial system; views of national leaders; or satisfaction with personal freedom of speech, assembly and religion – in short, the stock in trade of many public opinion surveys. The Gallup Organization, for one, asks each of these, where it can, in the ongoing “World Poll” it conducts in more than 150 countries.

And how many such questions are asked in China? Not a one.

Neither is this, likewise asked by Gallup in scores of other countries: “Some people think that for the military to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified. Which is your opinion?” Useful, perhaps, to know that on the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident this Thursday – were it only available.

Why isn't it? “We don’t have a political agenda so if the Chinese government doesn’t feel comfortable with us asking certain questions then we adhere to their request,” says Jon Clifton, deputy director of the World Poll. Others report similar experiences: The Chinese government reviews all surveys in advance – and rules out questions it views as politically sensitive.

This isn't the only country in which some of these questions are absent from the World Poll; China's got company from places such as Angola, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Turkmenistan. And Gallup does ask a battery of more personal-level questions, in China as elsewhere, focusing on daily life and well-being.

Some of those speak to the country’s extraordinary economic development – 83 percent of Chinese say their standard of living is improving, the most of any country in Gallup’s data. Fewer, but 66 percent, are satisfied with their living standard. (That compares to a low of 9 percent in Zimbabwe, 81 percent in the United States last summer and a high of 93 percent in Denmark). Around two-thirds of Chinese likewise express satisfaction with their system of education, public transportation, roads and availability of housing.

Engagement with the government, though, is another story: Just 5 percent in China say that in the past month they’ve “voiced their opinion to a public official,” tying Poland for the fewest in Gallup’s 149-nation dataset for this question. (It’s 32 percent in the United States, and a high of 42 percent in – who knew? – Laos.)

The lack of measurement of political sentiment in China is a shame particularly because the Gallup poll is a rare example of a true national survey there, representative of the full population. Those are difficult, and costly, to pull off; but they’re also the only way of reliably gauging national public opinion.

Apart from Gallup, the Pew Global Attitudes Project did a study in China last July, limited to mostly urban areas, with 58 percent of the country’s population excluded from the sample. In any case, Pew, too, covered ratings of living conditions and some national views – finding, for instance, that 86 percent of its respondents were satisfied with the country’s direction. It did push the envelope with one question, in which 78 percent rated corruption among officials as a “very” or “moderately” big problem. But again, nothing overtly political was asked.

The Tiananmen unrest represented a somewhat inchoate cry against authoritarianism and for economic reform. Twenty years later, some things about China clearly are very different – and others, it seems, much less so. That leaves public opinion on some very basic issues there unmeasured, and thus unknown.

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