Welcome to the first part of my series on Myths of Modern China. In this series, I try to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about China.
This article examines a popular myth—that the people in Mainland China are oppressed by the government (i.e., the Communist Party of China) and would overthrow it if given a chance.
In reality, every Western study of Chinese citizen’s attitudes toward their government has shown that the majority of people are satisfied:
- In a longitudinal study (2003-2016), researchers from the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School reported increasingly strong support for the central government, with over 93% of respondents in 2016 reporting that they were satisfied with the national government (Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time: ash.harvard.edu/files/ash/files/final_policy_brief_7.6.2020.pdf).
- According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 (see the following figure), among the countries surveyed, China had the highest score for trust in government, with 91% of respondents in China reporting trust in their government. The corresponding figures for the US and the UK are 39% and 42%, respectively (www.edelman.com/trust). For the sake of comparison, Hong Kong wasn’t included in the 2022 report, but in the 2020 report, the Hong Kong figure was 43% compared to China’s 90% (with the Hong Kong figure being related to trust in the territory’s government).
- In the Democracy Perception Index 2022 survey conducted by Latana (latana.com/democracy-perception-index/), 93% or respondents in China stated that they thought that the government served the majority of the people in the country. Among America respondents, only 37% thought that the government served the majority of the people. The mean figure among the 53 countries surveyed was 51%.
- In a 2020 study, researchers at the University of California reported that the mean score for trust in government in China was 8.87 out of 10. In addition, 83% of respondents in China indicated that they preferred their country’s system of government (chinadatalab.ucsd.edu/viz-blog/pandemic-sees-increase-in-chinese-support-for-regime-decrease-in-views-towards-us/).
- In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 92% of respondents in China had trust in their president, Xi Xinping. In 2016, the same organization reported that 86% of respondents China were satisfied with their government’s direction and 87% were satisfied with their country’s economic situation (www.pewresearch.org/global/database/indicator/3/country/CN).
- In a 2013 survey by Gallup, only 66% of respondents in China reported trust in their national government, but that still compares favorably to the corresponding figures for the US (35%), Australia (42%) and the United Kingdom (47%) (read.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/government-at-a-glance-2013_gov_glance-2013-en#page1).
Politicians around the world would kill for those approval ratings.
However, that doesn’t mean that everyone in China is satisfied with the government. According to the Ash Center report, for example, 4.3% of respondents indicated that they were NOT satisfied with the national government. Taking China’s population of 1.4 billion people into account, this tiny percentage translates to 60 million people! That’s enough disgruntled people to fill up a country the size of Italy, France or South Africa. As in any other country, among these disgruntled people will be those who are vaguely dissatisfied, those with opposing political beliefs, those who have suffered from real injustice and those with bizarre grudges due to imagined grievances. If you are a journalist looking for an angry or disappointed Chinese citizen to provide a soundbite to back up a certain narrative, it is easy to find one on social media (no matter how extreme the viewpoint). This is how you get articles like this one from the LA Times: China fulfills a dream to end poverty. Not all poor people are feeling better off (www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-11-27/china-2020-poverty-eradication-dream).
There is even a social media group—The Great Translation Movement—that specializes in finding and posting translations of extreme viewpoints expressed on social media, which it then tries to pass off as being representative of popular opinion in China.
There are also a lot of anti-CPC people in the Chinese diaspora and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this article only examines the attitudes of Mainland Chinese citizens toward their own government.
It is also important to note that, as in any country, there are many citizens in China who are opposed to individual policies, restrictions and/or individual politicians while still being satisfied with the government in general.
What accounts for the high levels of satisfaction with the government? There are six main reasons:
- Improvements in the quality of life
- Government responsiveness
- A meritocratic system
- Increased awareness of life in other countries
- The importance of stability and social harmony
1. Improvements in the Quality of Life
One reason for the satisfaction with the government is that Chinese citizens look at where the country was in 1949, when the Communist Party of China (CPC) took control of the country, and where it is today. Despite the great mistakes made during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 (mistakes that are acknowledged by the CPC), life has improved greatly. As shown in Table 1, people are living much longer, are better fed (leading to increases in height), are not as poor and are much better educated.
Table 1. Changes in Quality of Life
|China in 1949||China Now|
|Average life expectancy (mean)||c. 35-40 years||77 years|
|Infant mortality rate (deaths before the first birthday)||128 deaths per 1000 births (This is one of the factors contributing to the short average life expectancy).||5.5 deaths per 1000 births (UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation 2020)|
|Enrolment rate (primary school)||c. 20%||99.94% (2019)|
|Enrolment rate (secondary school)||c. 6%||91.2% (2019)|
|Literacy rate||Less than 20%||97% (2019)|
|Average height of 19-year-old males||1.68 m (1976)||1.76 m (2020)|
|Average height of 19-year-old females||1.52 m (1985)||1.65 m (2020)|
|Percentage of people living in extreme poverty (current measure = less than 1.9 USD per day)||87.5% (1950)||0% (2021; however, this only refers to EXTREME poverty; there is still a lot of poverty in China.)|
Many ‘China watchers’ mistakenly assume that all the improvements in the standard of living came only after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and implemented a series of market reforms. However, in reality, many gains were also made during the era of Mao Zedong. For example, life expectancy increased from around 37 years in 1950 to nearly 66 years in 1978.
In their 2015 study ‘An exploration of China’s mortality decline under Mao: A provincial analysis, 1950–80‘, Babiarz, Eggleston, Miller and Zhang state that “China’s growth in life expectancy between 1950 and 1980 ranks as among the most rapid sustained increases in documented global history”. In their research paper, they also comment on improvements in education:
China made large strides in primary and secondary education under Mao. In 1949, more than 80 per cent of China’s population was illiterate (Zhou 2009). Enrolment rates in primary and middle schools were abysmal: 20 and 6 per cent, respectively (Zhou 2009). During the 1950s, capital investments in primary and secondary school infrastructure increased tenfold, and dramatic increases in attendance followed. Primary school enrolment rates rose to 80 per cent by 1958 and to 97 per cent by 1975, and secondary school rates increased to 46 per cent by 1977 (Hannum 1999; Narayan and Smyth 2006). Although there were widespread school closures during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the stock of human capital nevertheless rose dramatically under Mao. According to educational attainment estimates derived from China’s 1982 and later censuses (Barro and Lee 2010), average years of schooling among Chinese ages 25 and over increased four-fold in the Mao era, from 0.7 years of schooling in 1950 to 3.7 years of schooling in 1980. Among young adults age 25 to 29, average years of schooling rose from 1.6 in 1950 to 5.7 in 1980. The increase in educational attainment among young women during the Mao era was especially large: a ten-fold increase from less than half a year of schooling in 1950 to slightly more than five years of schooling by 1980 (Barro and Lee 2010).(www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4331212/)
I recommend that you read the entire research paper as it describes in detail government policies and actions strictly from a public health perspective and without any politicized judgements.
During Mao’s era, the economy also improved considerably. Between 1952 and 1972, the Chinese GCP increased by 64% per decade
The rate of improvement in things like life expectancy, education and literacy during Mao Zedong’s era (1949-1976) laid the foundation for the more rapid economic growth and technological development (see Tables 2 & 3) that took off after Deng Xiaoping initiated a series of market reforms beginning in late 1978. This view—that the era of Mao Zedong laid the foundation for the economic successes that followed—is explained by Eric Li (starting at the five-minute mark):
Table 2. China vs America: Economy
|GDP in 1952||30 billion USD||367 billion USD (more than 10 times larger than China’s)|
|GDP per capita in 1952||53 USD||2,400 USD (around 45 times larger than China’s)|
|GDP in 2020||14.7 trillion USD (2nd in the world)||20.9 trillion USD (1st)|
|GDP per capita in 2020||10,500 USD (In 2020, China was ranked 79th in the world, which is why it is still regarded as a developing country, but that figure is nearly 200 times higher than 1952’s)||63,000 USD (5th, six times higher than China’s).|
|GDP Purchasing Power Parity in 2021||26.7 trillion USD (1st)||22.7 trillion USD (2nd)|
Table 3. China vs America: Technology, Environmental Protection Measures & Pandemic Responses
|Number of patents filed (2019)||432,000 (1st)||308,000 (2nd, but much higher than China on a per capita basis)|
|Kilometers of high speed rail (2021)||37,900 (1st)||54|
|Renewable energy capacity in gigawatts (2020)||895 (1st)||292 (2nd, but slightly higher than China on a per capita basis)|
|Number of electric buses (2021)||421,000 (1st)||2,800|
|Forest growth in square kilometers in 2021||19,370 (1st)||1,080 (7th)|
|Number of 5G base stations (2021)||990,000 (1st)||100,000|
|5G median download speed (2021)||299 Mbps||94 Mbps|
|Number of companies in the 10 largest internet companies (2021)||5 (JD.Com, Tencent, Alibaba, Suning, Bytedance)||5 (Amazon, Alphabet, Meta- Facebook, Netflix, Paypal)|
|Number of PhD graduates in STEM fields (2019)||49,498||33,759 (much higher than China on a per capita basis, but China is working on greatly increasing the number of its STEM graduates)|
|Number of industrial robots installed in 2020 (according to World Robotics 2021)||168,400 (1st)||30,800 (3rd)|
|PISA rankings in mathematics, science and reading (2018)||1st, 1st, 1st (but these figures only cover four areas: China: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang)||38th, 19th, 13th|
|Number of universities in the Top 10 in terms of number of science papers published in 2021 (According to Nature Index 2022)||4 (Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Peking University, University of Science and Technology of China)||3 (Harvard, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)|
|Deaths per million from COVID-19 (as of 31 March 2022)||3 (215th)||3,012 (18th, but 1st in total number of deaths)|
Chinese companies are now leaders in things like 5G technology, drones, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, reforestation and renewable energy. When the US government refused to let China use the International Space Station, China simply built its own.
Due to the country’s rapid development, there is a strong sense of national pride and this sentiment has further led to widespread support for the government.
In addition, the government seems to be actively tackling important issues such as corruption, environmental degradation, financial bubbles and increasing income inequality (between the rich and poor and also between the coastal provinces and the inland ones).
Life is a LOT better than it used to be and there is no reason why it won’t continue to get better. Consequently, although there are many challenges on the horizon—one example is the middle income trap (SCMP article: Why China’s strategy for avoiding the middle-income trap is a challenging one)— Chinese people are quite optimistic about the future (See Table 4).
Table 4. China vs America: Optimism
|Percentage of respondents optimistic about the next year (2020 IPSOS Global Advisor Predictions survey)||94% (1st)||82%|
Of course, perhaps if the Kuomintang had emerged victorious in China’s civil war (1927-1949) and if China had adopted a neo-liberal capitalist democracy, the country might have progressed even further and faster. However, you can consider the example of democratic India, which was in a similar situation to China in the late 1940s:
- Both countries had been ravaged by colonial powers. For much of the last 2,000 years, China and India had the world’s largest economies. However, both countries became impoverished during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.
- Both countries have massive populations comprised of different ethnic groups and religions
- At that time, both countries had around the same GDP and had similar problems with poverty, illiteracy and low life expectancy.
Like China, India has also come a long way since then, but at the moment, its GDP is over five times smaller than that of China, life expectancy in India lags China’s by about seven years and it’s literacy rate is at 74% compared to China’s 97%. Of course, this is not incontrovertible proof of anything. The comparison merely suggests that the combination of democracy and liberalism does not necessarily lead to better outcomes
2. Government Responsiveness
Another reason for the strong support for the Chinese government is that it tends to consider and respond to public opinion.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the system of government in China is not a democracy as there are no one-person one-vote elections for top officials.
However, that does not mean that there are NO democratic elements in the entire country.
An example of local-level democracy can be seen in a PBS* documentary on poverty alleviation—Voices from the Frontline: China’s War on Poverty (www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuaJGPZCBYU). Near the beginning of the documentary, there is footage of a village meeting in which all the residents in the village vote to decide which families can be considered financially strong enough to have graduated from the poverty alleviation program (i.e., they no longer need support measures from the government). In the meeting, each family’s exact financial situation is laid out for everyone in the village to analyze, a process which many people in the West would consider a violation of privacy. Therefore, this intrusive kind of democratic process may not be suitable in a Western democracy.
*PBS later pulled the documentary from its programming, arguing that it may have been unduly influenced by its Chinese co-producers. However, the writer and host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, disputes this claim (thetricontinental.org/studies-1-socialist-construction/).
In China, there are elections at the local, grassroots level, and there are various ways in which citizens can express their views. Many government departments, for example, have online forms or forums to collect feedback, and if those departments fail to act, people may protest to bring the matter to the attention of more powerful authorities. Protests are surprisingly common in China, with tens of thousands of protests held every year (www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/how-china-stays-stable-despite-500-protests-every-day/250940/).
Regarding methods for receiving feedback, there are apps such as the Shanghai Public Services hotline that people can use to lodge complaints about or enquire about government services. The Shanghai hotline handles around 10,000 cases a day and even has a sign language service. Government departments are required to respond to the complaints with 72 hours. People using the service can choose to make the complaints and responses public or private. Here is a similar service for the prefectural-level city if Dongguan in Guangdong wz.sun0769.com/political/depart/index.
in 2021, the municipal hotlines, like the ones in Shanghai and Dongguan, were grouped under one umbrella to form a national hotline which people access by dialing 12345 (www.shine.cn/news/nation/2101203491/).
When people use these services, there is also normally a follow-up procedure to see if the issue has been resolved. The information gathered from the follow-up is used as part of the assessment of the effectiveness of various government departments. As CGTN reports “There will be an evaluation system to assess the performance of hotline workers, related officials and departments through follow-up phone calls, messages and other measures. Solving problems for the public will be viewed as an important factor in promoting and awarding workers.” (news.cgtn.com/news/2021-01-08/China-rolls-out-12345-hotline-to-optimize-government-service-WSW8ehnCJG/index.html).
A Twitter user from China, Will, has a written a thread (twitter.com/willehelmwonka/status/1309760094624600066) outlining some of the ways the government collects and acts on information gleaned from social media. He provides a link to this Washington Post Article—In China, Communist Party takes unprecedented step: It is listening—and also provides the following screenshot of a Weibo post on the topic of the yearly legislative session (两会). The entire thread, which was moderated by the China Daily, had 11.6 billion views and 9.5 million comments.
In that Twitter thread, Will also describes the different political parties and factions as well as the methods of elections of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), but I will leave that information for another article.
If a government decision or action (or inaction) sparks a public outcry on social media, government officials will often backtrack, initiate an investigation or take action. Here are three small examples:
- In Chongqing, there was public outrage over a case in which a wheelchair-bound tutor was denied a teaching certificate because she could not pass a physical exam. Responding to the outcry, the Chongqing government ruled that the procedure was discriminatory and changed its policies (clb.org.hk/content/chongqing-government-amends-discriminatory-policy-after-public-outcry).
- Early in 2022, a pandemic lockdown in Xian did not go smoothly, sparking many complaints online. Officials were quickly sacked (www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3161936/coronavirus-xian-officials-sacked-over-handling-outbreak-cases-fall). A couple of days later, hospital officials in Xi’an were fired for denying entry to a pregnant women who ended up suffering a miscarriage (www.ft.com/content/4c5d3974-e676-4eea-b0c2-1f346b1dba68).
- When African immigrants/expatriates suffered from discrimination in a few cities in Guangdong early in the COVID pandemic, government officials promptly responded with anti-discrimination measures (www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3082653/chinas-guangdong-province-unveils-new-anti-discrimination).
I am sure there are also many examples of problems or injustices that have been ignored for years on end. However, it is clear that the government often does respond to the feedback it receives from citizens.
The responsiveness of the government and the democratic features that do exist lead many in China to view their country as being democratic despite there being no elections for national and provincial leaders.
- In the Democracy Perception Index 2022 survey conducted by Latana (latana.com/democracy-perception-index/), 83% of Chinese respondents considered their country to be democratic. Of the 53 countries survey, this figure was the highest. The global average was 56%,
- In a 2014 survey, 60% of Chinese respondents considered their country to be at least somewhat democratic (www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-dickson-democracy-in-china-20160812-snap-story.html).
- In a 2020 survey reported by Bloomberg (www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-06-26/which-nations-are-democracies-some-citizens-might-disagree), 73% of Chinese respondents considered China to be democratic (compared to 49% of American respondents who thought the USA was democratic).
3. A Meritocratic System
The Chinese government practices a meritocratic system in which government officials start at the bottom and are required to work their way up, proving themselves at each level. In a Twitter thread, Shanghai Panda (twitter.com/thinking_panda/status/1305784641262026752), describes the process of becoming a high-ranking government official (using Xi Jinping as an example):
- First, you need a university degree (Xi studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University, graduating in 1979).
- You then need to pass the civil service examination and be admitted to the civil service. In 2019, 92,000 people took the exam, but only 14,527 were admitted.
- Then you start work as a civil servant as a ‘staff member’ (Xi joined the civil service in 1979). Your performance is assessed annually by your superiors, peers and subordinates. This assessment affects your promotion prospects.
- At some point, you need to join one of the eight political parties. The CPC is the largest party. Although it has over 90 million members, its selection process is quite rigorous (Xi joined the CPC in 1974, but only after being rejected nine times).
- Civil service staff members who perform exceptionally well may become the head of a district or county and be responsible for hundreds of thousands of citizens (Xi became Secretary of Zhengding County in Hebei in 1983).
- The next step is to become a high-ranking official in a relatively large city (Xi became the top official of Fuzhou City, Fujian Province in 1990).
- The next step is to work your way up to be the leader of a province (Xi became governor of Fujian Province in 2000).
- Then you may take over the reins of a large province (Xi became party chief or Zhejiang province in 2002), a tier one city (Xi became Party Secretary of Shanghai in 2007) or a border province (Hu Jintao, a former president, had previously been the governor of Tibet).
- To be a top national official, you need to be elected by the Central Committee to join the Politburo and/or get selected to join the National People’s Congress. The top several officials make up the Politburo Standing Committee (Xi was appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007).
- The final step is to become president of the country (Xi became vice president in 2008 and president in 2013).
This meritocratic system involves a high degree of accountability. The Peter Principle (i.e., the idea that people rise to their level of incompetence) may still be relevant, but in the Chinese government, incompetent officials are frequently sacked or moved down to a position that has responsibilities that they can handle properly (and if they can prove themselves at that level, they may be given another opportunity to handle larger responsibilities).
The top officials at the national level have gone through a decades-long slog starting at the grassroots level and have worked in many different regions of the country. They have paid their dues and are generally considered to be capable people with a proven track record.
4. Increased Awareness of Life in Other Countries
An additional factor leading to the strong support for the government is that because the world is now more interconnected, people in China know more about the West than they used to. They have access to Western news and entertainment sites (the use of VPNs to access blocked sites is widespread) and they communicate regularly with friends and relatives who live overseas. In a normal (i.e., non-pandemic) year, over a hundred million Chinese tourists travel overseas and can see what life is like in other countries. Within China, countries like America and England are still widely regarded as lands of opportunity, but people are more aware of the downsides of living there. There are not many people in Mainland China looking at politics in America or England at the moment and thinking ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want for my country.’
Similarly, the fate of Russia has served as a cautionary tale. When the leader of the socialist USSR— Mikhail Gorbachev—visited Beijing in May 1989, he represented an alternative path for China. At the time of the visit, he was in the middle of implementing wide-ranging political and economic reforms, moving the USSR towards democracy, capitalism and rapprochement with the West. His reforms were an inspiration to the segment of Tiananmen Square protesters that wanted to see similar reforms unfold in China. However, in 1991, just over two years after his visit to Beijing, the USSR collapsed, splitting up into 15 different countries. After Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin implemented free-market reforms, the standard of living in Russia fell precipitously. Corruption ran rampant, and life expectancy for men plunged from 65 years old in 1987 to 58 in 1994 (the reasons for this drop are discussed here: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9508159/). Consequently, the dissolution of the USSR and the social devastation that followed has served as a warning for Chinese government officials and Chinese citizens. That alternative path in 1989—Gorbachev-style political and economic reform—is generally regarded as a bullet dodged and not as an opportunity lost.
5. The Importance of Stability & Social Harmony
Another reason for the strong support for the government is related to history and philosophy.
In 1999, when the former Portuguese colony of Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty, it marked the first time since 1842 that China was completely free from foreign occupation. Throughout Chinese history, there has been one constant: if the country was divided (or occupied) and the government was weak, there would be human suffering on a massive scale; if the country was strong and the government was strong, life for the average person was much better. The fact that China, under the CPC, is strong enough to be considered ‘uninvadable’ is not lost on many of the country’s citizens.
Since even before China was first unified in 221 B.C., its government and society in general has been influenced by the competing and complementary philosophies of Confucianism (which emphasizes morality, correct behavior and mutual responsibility) and, perhaps more profoundly, Legalism (which emphasizes impersonal standards—things such as laws, systems of reward and punishment, administrative regulations and rules of promotion and demotion). Though very different, both philosophies share a strong concern for stability and social harmony.
I had better clear up one misunderstanding here. A lot of people misunderstand Confucianism as being a philosophy that stresses obedience. When it comes to ‘obedience’, Confucianism puts emphasis on mutual responsibility—if the leaders are performing well and caring for their citizens, citizens are expected to perform their duties well and obey and be loyal to their leaders. If the leaders do not fulfill their side of the ‘contract’, however, all bets are off when it comes to loyalty and obedience.
6. Propaganda & Censorship
As mentioned in my article on the roles of the news media (longzijun.wordpress.com/2021/04/08/roles-of-the-news-media/), the press in China has two roles that the press in the West doesn’t have: (1) directly disseminating information from the government and (2) promoting stability, unity and social harmony. However, this means that some of the functions associated with a free press—such as the watchdog function and the push-for-change function—are limited.
To fulfill the first of those two main roles—disseminating information from the government—the news media in China often focuses on what the government is doing. For example, on 4 April 2022, the landing page of the website of the Chinese-language People’s Daily included the following content on the top half of the page:
- a tribute to President Xi Jinping;
- the national government’s response to problems with the pandemic lockdown in Shanghai (the government sent in the army to help unload and deliver food and assist in providing support);
- a government accident prevention program;
- hillside fire inspections related to the upcoming Ching Ming festival;
- plans by the government and the Bank of China to expand the use of digital yuan;
- a travel article about a traditional village in Fujian province;
- the government’s environmental measures to combat climate change;
- an opinion piece about deepening the relationship between the European Union and the Chinese government;
- China’s pavilion at the Dubai World Expo (which represented a celebration of the county’s achievements);
- a warning (from the government) about British interference in Hong Kong;
- a section specifically about the CPC, featuring articles such as a description of anti-corruption efforts in Shaanxi and profiles of two CPC members;
- a leadership message board that serves as a kind of forum between citizens and government officials. For example, one of the two featured messages is from Handan Municipal Party Secretary Zhang Weiliang and is about what that city is doing to respond to a complaint posted by a netizen. The netizen had complained that it was too difficult for people in wheelchairs to use public transport in that city to go to the hospital. The response was that the city would increase the number of buses that are wheelchair accessible and would give more training to bus drivers on how to use the barrier-free access flaps that are already installed on many of the buses.
You can see that most of the articles in the above list are related to what the government is doing to improve the lives of the people (and are rather dry and policy oriented). They even including a specific response from an official in China’s 18th largest city (Handan) to a complaint regarding lack of wheelchair access in local buses. Among all the articles, only the travel article is unrelated to the government.
In contrast, on the same day (4 April 2022), only four of the first twenty-five articles on the Guardian’s national edition landing page were about the British government, the main opposition party or municipal politics. The headlines of these articles were: (1) UK public does not believe the government will tackle crime, (2) Labour women urge party not to use NDAs for sexual harassment purposes, (3) Buses: Quarter of routes axed in England last decade, (4) Partygate: Fines issued over Downing Street party the night before Philip’s funeral. Those articles all present politicians in a negative light—focusing on their inaction, misbehavior or reduction of services.
In China, the word ‘propaganda’ doesn’t carry the same negative connotations as it does in the West. Instead, the meaning of the word is restricted to its more literal definition: “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions” (Cambridge English Dictionary). The information in the People’s Daily articles listed above isn’t fake or misleading; however, the information is framed to present the government in a positive light. For example, in the pandemic article, rather than dwelling on the problems with the lockdown in Shanghai (and the municipal government’s shortcomings), the article focuses on what the national government is doing to try to handle those problems.
It is likely that Chinese citizens’ opinions of their government are at least slightly influenced by the news media’s focus on positive governmental actions and responses.
However, Chinese citizens are well aware of the propaganda role of the news media and they tend to consume the news accordingly—with skepticism. If they have doubts about what is being reported, Chinese citizens will check social media and Western media sources for confirmation. If the government is actually doing ‘X’ and people on social media are reporting ‘Y’, citizens will soon know about it and their trust in government will be affected. Government officials are aware of this, and as a result, while news articles in China are often one-sided and/or have a very pro-government positive spin, they aren’t completely fraudulent (as was the case with the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction stories in the Western media) .
Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that news media propaganda in China serves to support/reinforce positive attitudes toward the government rather than to get citizens to ‘call a horse a deer’ (指鹿為馬).
Also, the news media isn’t nearly as homogenous as some might think. There are dry policy-oriented outlets like People’s Daily as well as magazines focusing on lighter news and entertainment and a lot of news organizations in between (e.g., Information Times and Southern Metropolitan Daily).
The entertainment and publishing industries also serve a propaganda purpose to a certain extent (I’ll discuss that in another article). Popular TV shows, movies and books that are aimed at the mass market won’t normally dwell on topics like government or police corruption; however, literature and arthouse movies are another matter. Works like George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ are freely available, and arthouse movies—like Vivian Qu’s award-winning 2017 movie ‘Angels Wear White’—may shine a harsh light on government corruption and the people who facilitate it. Similarly artists who are very critical of the Chinese government (like Ai Weiwei) regularly hold exhibitions in Mainland China.
When it comes to censorship, however, there are still red lines. For example, if the government declares a work or artist to be subversive, that specific work or all the works by that person may be banned. The best example of that is probably the activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu could positively be described as a pro-freedom activist (he often wrote about democratic reform and human rights) or negatively described as being pro-US-imperialism and pro-war (he strongly supported America’s actions in Iraq, calling them the “best examples of how war should be conducted in a modern civilization”, and he argued that for China to evolve into a “humane” Westernized culture, it would require 300 years of colonization by Western powers). When he was arrested after helping co-author a manifesto/petition called Charter 08, his supporters argued that he was merely calling for reform while his detractors (including the government) argued that he was seeking to overthrow the government.
You should be able to see a trend emerging when it comes to government censorship. If you are resourceful enough to know how to use a VPN to access blocked sites, patient enough to enjoy an arthouse movie and/or smart enough to get though a serious work of fiction, the government doesn’t particularly care about strictly controlling what information you get access to, but only as long as certain red lines (e.g., calling for the overthrow of the government or for the country to be split up) aren’t crossed.
Due to the aforementioned reasons—(1) increases in the quality of life during CPC rule, and the resulting feelings of national pride and optimism about the future, (2) a belief that the government is responsive, proactive and genuinely concerned for the well-being of the people, (3) a meritocratic political system, (4) a growing awareness of the imperfections of other countries, (5) a generally-held belief that a strong government and stable society are preconditions for prosperity and (6) the news media’s focus on government actions and responses—there is strong support for the Communist Party of China amongst the country’s people.
That does not mean people support every one of the government’s policies. People may still disagree vehemently with specific government policies but still hold the view that the government usually acts in the interests of its people. Similarly, this strong support does not mean that there are no dissidents or dissenters.
- Children playing on the frozen lake at the Summer Palace in Beijing (1995): Related article & photo gallery: longzijun.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/visiting-beijing-1995-to-1997/
- Family in the Sangke Grasslands, Xiahe, Gansu (1996): Related article & photo gallery: longzijun.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/xiahe/
- Shanghai (2015): Photos not yet uploaded
Please feel free to leave comments on the content of above article. However, don’t bother writing things like ‘but what about Xinjiang, Tiananmen, Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, African debt traps, the ban on Winnie the Pooh etc.?’ As you can see from the above article, it takes quite a lot of research (and time) to dispel just one myth, so I won’t respond to those comments here. You can, however, suggest that I tackle such subjects in future articles.
~ photos and text by longzijun
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