Public Opinion in China

We know that the People’s Republic of China is a vast country, made up of varied and diverse constituencies spread horizontally across social groups, and laterally across the very different dynamics within separate Chinese provinces and autonomous regions, and then within each of these places, from prefecture, to township, down to village level. How analysts and scholars outside of the country best get to grips with this complexity is a constant issue. When we come to asking questions about what Chinese people might think about their country, their key day to day challenges, their past and their future we hit particularly severe issues. These are the questions that constantly interest us, and yet which it has proved surprising hard to get good empirical evidence for.

These questions about what broad publics might think are hard to answer anywhere. Understanding public opinion even in the most densely surveyed terrain is hard. Pollsters are always being wrong footed on electoral outcomes, and trying to improve their methods. In China, trying to monitor public opinion objectively through surveys is relatively recent. Officials right at the top are always appealing to public opinion support for their domestic and foreign policy positions. But in the era of extensive social media coverage and connectivity, are they able to continue doing this without engaging with some difficult evidence that comes to us through the voices of these new ways of giving expression as individuals to personal opinions? Just grandly stating that all Chinese believe something is no longer good enough. Just a simple look at Sina Weibo proves in fact that there are varied spectrums of opinion in China as anywhere else.

These are the questions raised by Hsiao-Wen Lee in her paper on public opinion in China. She shows the historic basis of collection of data about what the public think, dating right back to the Republican Period, and then the institutions and assessment methods that have been set up over the last few decades to gather opinion, and make it useful for leaders as they try to make decisions. She also shows, clearly, the many pitfalls and limitations that this system has had, and where it currently stands.

Chinese leaders are responsive to public opinion, as she shows. But there are major issues about the quality of data that is being collected, the methods by which it is interpreted, and finally the ways in which it is then fed into the policy making apparatus. The one thing one can say with some certainty now is that the dramatically different terrain of social media has created new dynamics and challenges, and that these are going to take years to work out. This excellent paper offers a well grounded overview of an issue critical to China’s future, and yet one which is understudied and misunderstood. Dr Lee, a scholar based in the UK, brings to this subject cultural sensitivity, and a refreshing lack of bias, as she used extensive field research experience in China to approach this important subject.

The China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney hopes that in offering policy-focused papers like these, we can contribute to the deeper understanding of modern China and its challenges as it undertakes more reforms in the coming decade. It is a great pleasure to have this paper as the first in what we hope will be a long series of papers that contribute to this debate.

Professor Kerry Brown
Executive Director, China Studies Centre, and Professor of Chinese Politics, University of Sydney