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China’s top priorities? Here’s what Communist Party leaders say — and our poll results.

- March 30, 2017
A delegate looks at his phone before the closing session of the 12th National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 15. (Wang Zhao/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Every March, thousands of “people’s representatives” descend on Beijing to attend the liang-hui (or “double meeting”) sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC). Formally, these sessions are the pinnacle of decision-making in the People’s Republic of China and key pillars for the ruling regime’s claim to popular legitimacy.

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In practice, a far more powerful conclave, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plenum, sets out the political agenda several months in advance. For their part, China’s indirectly elected legislatures rarely challenge positions laid out by the government. Indeed, only 14 of the 2,843 NPC representatives objected to the 2017 annual government work report, the lowest dissent rate in over a decade.

Chinese leaders do look at public opinion

According to Mao Zedong thought, the essence of governance comes “from the masses” before it is directed “to the masses.” So how do Chinese leaders listen to the masses?

Chinese leaders solicit public opinion before most major decisions, via town hall meetings, calls, letters and, increasingly, online surveys. When President Xi Jinping describes China’s system as a “consultative democracy,” this is what he is referring to. The liang-hui is one stage of the consultation process, when representatives take “the resulting ideas back to the masses, explaining and popularizing them until the masses embrace the ideas as their own . . . (CCP Central Committee, 1943).”

This may sound rather contrived, but a number of studies suggest that consultation in China bolsters public satisfaction and trust in government.

In a new book on governance reforms in China, my co-authors and I leverage two decades of archive data on provincial consultation and policy compliance to show how the process helps local leaders make smarter choices that are easier to adopt and enforce.

But is consultation simply a way of packaging authoritarian policy for public consumption? Or does public input permeate regime policy choices?

What does consultation and representation look like in China?

Political scientists typically assess representation by looking at congruence between government policy and public opinion. Do policymakers address the public’s priorities? Are policymakers and the public largely in sync on a particular issue?

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Since 2005, the NPC has consulted the public on over 100 national policy items, with thousands of other consultations organized by regulatory bodies and regional governments. Though these issues were open for debate, only regime insiders got a sense of the public pulse — until recently, there’s been no independent polling around these issues.

In an effort to gauge public sentiments, my colleagues and I launched the China Policy Barometer (CPB), a national opinion poll, in January 2016. To date, the CPB’s two successful waves have surveyed roughly 4,000 Internet-based respondents regarding their views on ongoing policy debates.

How does official policy stack up to public opinion?

Many analysts expected national defense to highlight this year’s liang-hui, in response to the White House’s recent assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific theater. China’s leaders instead focused on the economy and rule of law, outlining a vision for further economic reform and a new civil code. Defense spending rose only 7 percent, the smallest increase in seven years.

This sequence of priorities is in line with public sentiment, as shown in Figure 1. Less than 20 percent of CPB respondents identified defense as a top priority, far below economic management.

Figure 1 — What is China’s top priority in 2017? Survey respondents ranked the economy as the highest priority, and fewer seemed concerned about defense issues. Data from 2017 China Policy Barometer.

CPB respondents reported policy-specific preferences along a scale that ranges from 1 to 10, anchored on both ends by contrasting perspectives. For instance, in 2016 and again in 2017, we informed respondents about tensions in the South China Sea and asked whether China should pursue a diplomatic approach, mindful of international law and regional cooperation — or an assertive strategy, dictated by China’s strengths and capabilities.

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Juxtaposing the ultimate decisions reached by policymakers with the public leanings estimated in the CPB offers a rough gauge of congruence. In 2016, for example, Chinese policymakers adopted amendments on criminal law, counterterrorism and wildlife protection, each of which were supported by a majority of respondents. The regime also imposed harsh rules on foreign NGOs and sacrificed online privacy for security — choices that appear to reflect the more conservative leanings of the Chinese public.

Many of the policy items surveyed in the 2017 CPB have yet to be officially decided. But if public opinion is an indicator, we should expect some loosening of restrictions on ride-sharing services and more oversight for public security surveillance.

There are two big caveats to these summary findings

First, not all policies are open to consultation. Matters of national economic or foreign policy are almost always determined behind the CCP’s closed doors, and congruence is far weaker. For instance, while respondents supported media independence and private property rights in 2016, government policy took a harder line. The government sought out the “public good” by demanding “absolute loyalty” from journalists and extended power to local governments seeking to reorganize urban communities.

Similarly, while most CPB respondents preferred an aggressive strategy in the South China Sea and more active supervision of the stock market, the regime dialed down the volume in both cases. Respondents and the regime did agree on cracking down on informal lenders rather than liberalizing the private banking sector.

The second big caveat is that Chinese public opinion is hardly uniform. With the exception of a handful of issues (mistrust of foreign NGOs and support for aid and investment abroad), preference distributions appear almost bimodal.

In a working paper based on the CPB data, Sinan Chu and I argue that, despite being a single-party polity, public preferences in China correlate strongly with ideological orientation. Put simply, China’s liberals are more tolerant, support free markets and prefer a softer foreign policy. Conservatives support state intervention and promotion of traditional culture and remain suspicious of Western ideas and institutions.

Taking public opinion into account

The CPB findings are preliminary at best and perhaps oversimplify public opinion. Moreover, the CPB relies on an Internet-based convenience sample. Even after responses are re-weighted to reflect the general population, estimates may not be representative. Nevertheless, for those interested in questions such as whether China will emerge as the standard-bearer for free markets or as an aggressor on matters of regional security, they offer an important glimpse into domestic nuances in China’s oddly democratic approach to authoritarianism.

Dimitar Gueorguiev is an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is the co-author (with Jonathan Stromseth and Edmund Malesky) of “China’s Governance Puzzle.”