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Read this book if you want to know what China’s citizens really think about their government

- October 4, 2016
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Beijing on Sept. 29. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

In 2010 and 2014, political scientist Bruce Dickson collaborated with Chinese scholars to survey public perceptions of China’s ruling Communist Party. Researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with some 4,000 people in 50 cities across the country. The results may come as a surprise: The regime enjoys high levels of popular support. In his new book, “The Dictator’s Dilemma,” Dickson explains why the regime remains so popular and argues that, contrary to popular belief, China may not be headed toward democracy.

Dickson discussed his findings in a recent interview, which has been edited and condensed.

What surprised you the most about the survey results?

The surveys asked a variety of basic questions about people’s political attitudes, social values and assessment of broad public goods like the environment, health care, education, elderly care and transportation. They also asked more detailed questions about specific policy areas, like health care and education, and about corruption, trust in government and satisfaction with the government’s work. In many ways, my findings were consistent with just about every other survey I’ve seen coming out of China: No matter how you measure it, no matter what questions you ask, the results always indicate that the vast majority of people are truly satisfied with the status quo.

There were two things that surprised me most. One was that people said that their incomes were rising and that they remained optimistic about further income gains in the future, despite the fact that the economy is currently slowing down. Some people have suggested that the slowdown could pose a legitimacy crisis for the party, but so long as incomes continue to rise, “pocketbook” factors [one’s personal financial situation] seem to outweigh “sociotropic” ones [one’s assessment of the state of the broader economy].

The second big surprise was about corruption. The 2010 survey took place before Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign began. The 2014 survey happened a few years into the campaign. The results showed two different pictures. On the one hand, in 2014, people thought that the corruption situation in their own cities was getting better. They could see that local officials were not holding the kinds of banquets and other activities that had created so much resentment in the past. But the campaign had also exposed how high corruption had spread. People had always thought corruption was a problem locally, but the campaign had shown that even very high-ranking officials were engaged in corruption as well.

The first finding is good for Xi because it’s his campaign and people are likely to give him credit for its accomplishments. But the second finding is bad for the party’s reputation as a whole because people now see that corruption is not just a local issue, that it’s endemic to the political system as a whole.

Given that the regime enjoys such high levels of popular support, why did Xi feel the need to launch such a brutal crackdown on corruption?

He recognized that corruption has been one of the most corrosive elements of regime support. It’s a very unpopular issue in any country and many people in China think that the wealth that’s being generated has been unfairly benefiting people who are in the party or in government and their relatives. So there was a need to address corruption as a public concern. The campaign has also been, in part, a witch hunt, with Xi targeting people who don’t support him. As the campaign has gone on, it has looked more and more like an effort to target specific people, as opposed to a genuine effort to eradicate corruption. If people start to see it as a vindictive campaign, as opposed to an effort to improve things, then I think it could end up backfiring.

What is “the dictator’s dilemma”?

The dilemma is that each of the things that the party does to try to keep itself in power in the short run may have long-term negative consequences for it. Like all authoritarian regimes, the party in China uses three methods to keep itself in power. One is repression. We’ve seen an increase in censorship on the Web. We’ve seen a crackdown on lawyers and political activists in the country. And the dilemma is that as repression becomes more widespread, more people are targeted, even if they’re not doing things that are critical of the party. The wider the scope of the repression, the more the party may convert people who would otherwise be supporters of or neutral toward the regime into part of the opposition.

Second, the party pursues policies to generate popular support, whether through economic growth or rising incomes. The concern here is that the short-term benefits of creating growth may, in the long run, lead to more of the NIMBY [“Not In My Backyard”] protests that we see quite commonly in China. That may create rising expectations and new political demands. We haven’t seen much of that yet, but it’s a long-term concern.

The third key area is co-optation, or bringing new people into the party. The concern here is that it’s not clear how loyal these new people are. They see joining the party as beneficial to their career goals, but they are not necessarily loyal party members. So each of the key elements of the party’s strategy for survival also create long-term risks — that’s the dilemma.

What did your survey find about attitudes toward censorship?

That was another surprising finding. The survey asked people if they had encountered specific kinds of censorship: If the websites they had wanted to visit were unavailable, if things they had posted had been taken down, or if their accounts had been canceled. Half of the population is not online, but the remarkable thing was that of the population that is online, only a relatively small segment said they had experienced censorship. Among the people who had experienced it, most of them said it didn’t matter, that they weren’t that bothered by it. Out of the entire set of respondents, only about 7 or 8 percent said that they were actually angry about encountering censorship.

It seems as though most people don’t encounter censorship because they’re not doing political things online. They’re not searching for politically sensitive information. They’re not going to foreign websites. They’re playing games. They’re checking email. They’re shopping. The ones that do encounter censorship seem to take it in stride because this has been the nature of the Web in China from the very beginning.

Are there any specific challenges that come with trying to gauge public opinion in an authoritarian country like China?

There are a few different problems. Certain things are difficult to ask, not just because of government censorship, but because the respondents either don’t want to answer or they’re not sure what the answer should be, so they’ll just give a politically correct answer. That’s why we worked with a survey center that knows what is sensitive at different times, especially since what’s sensitive can change from year to year. It’s not censorship that has been the problem. It’s more about being aware of what respondents will find sensitive and not making people nervous to the point that they will just end the interview altogether.

The surveys indicate broad popular support for the regime. What do you think have been the regime’s smartest policies?

The fact that so many people find themselves with rising incomes and a rising standard of living is a key source of support. The party has also been good at promoting nationalism and patriotism and the idea that without the party, China would be much more unstable. That message seems to resonate with lots of people.

The party has also been trying to resurrect more traditional ways of thinking, in particular Confucianism. The party is trying to reach back into Chinese history and tradition to emphasize that it really is embedded in China’s past, especially since Marxism-Leninism does not seem to be as salient a source of support anymore. But this doesn’t seem to have had the kind of impact that the party was hoping.

You found that younger respondents were less enthusiastic about the party than older ones were. What explains the difference?

There are two possible explanations. One is that there is a generational difference, that the younger generation has grown up only knowing prosperity, only knowing growth, without the reference point of the bad old days, the Maoist period, the mass campaigns, the economic and political suffering, and therefore that they don’t realize how much better things are now. It could also be a life-cycle effect. Younger people in most countries tend to be more dissatisfied than their elders, and then as they get older, their values and expectations change, and they become more complacent.

Does the fact that younger survey respondents are less supportive of the regime make it any more likely that China will liberalize?

I’m not sure if it means that the country will liberalize in the future. There’s skepticism, even among young people in China, that a liberal democracy is really the solution to China’s current problems. They see the gridlock in the United States, they see similar problems in Western Europe, they see the transitions to democracy in the Middle East and in the former Soviet world. It’s not clear to them that the alternative is really better. There may be an effort to try and have limited liberalization but not necessarily a strong push for actual democratic change.

So you don’t think China’s headed toward democracy?

More often than not, countries transitioning away from totalitarian regimes do not end up as democracies. So even if there were a regime change in China, we should not assume that the alternative would be a stable liberal democracy. In addition, many people in China believe that the country is already becoming democratic, and most of them are satisfied with the level of democracy in the country. The twist is that they don’t define democracy in terms of elections, a multiparty system [or] rule of law — the institutional features that we associate with liberal democracy. They associate it more with whether the government is benefiting the people. So there’s not a big push within the country for a more democratic system because by their definition, that change is already happening. Finally, because most people still see their incomes rising and still see their material interest benefiting from the regime, they feel that the current system is the most appropriate, even if they have complaints.

The fact that there’s widespread popular support in China for the regime is not one you hear very often in the Western media.

In casual conversations in China, people will complain extensively about pollution, about traffic congestion, about the cost of health care, about corruption, about a whole bunch of things that they find irritating. Many of those are things Americans also complain about. But then if you ask them if they would want a different form of government to deal with those problems, they say, ‘Of course not.’ They just want the current system to work better. The findings from my surveys are different from the messages that we often get in the media, but they are consistent with every academic study I’ve seen that has looked at regime support in the country. In the media, we get stories, we get videos, we hear examples of wrongdoing. That’s very powerful. But when you step back and look at things from a broader perspective, you find that, despite the frustration about specific policy areas, there’s still strong support for the regime.