Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, April 20, 2015

Feedback without meaningful elections

An autocratic regime needs to assess public opinion, at least to identify opposition to its policies and existence. Rather than holding effectively democratic elections, the Communist Party of China has begun using public opinion polls.

The critical masses: Officials increasingly ask people a once taboo question: what they think
IN RECENT weeks official media have published a flurry of opinion polls. One in China Daily showed that most people in the coastal cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou think that smog is getting worse. Another noted the high salary expectations of university students. Yet another found that over two-thirds of respondents in Henan province in central China regard local officials as inefficient and neglectful of their duties. For decades the Communist Party has claimed to embody and express the will of the masses. Now it is increasingly seeking to measure that will—and let it shape at least some of the party’s policies.

Since the party seized power in 1949 it has repeatedly unleashed public opinion only to suppress it with force, from the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1956… to the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. For the past two decades, the party has effectively bought people’s obedience by promising—and delivering—a better, richer future. This will be tougher in the years ahead as the economy slows. Members of a huge new middle class are demanding more from their government in areas ranging from the environment to the protection of property rights. So the party must respond to concerns in order to retain its legitimacy.

Xi Jinping, who took over as China’s leader in 2012, has shown even less inclination than his predecessors to let citizens express their preferences through the ballot box. Yet the public has become ever more vocal on a wide variety of issues—online, through protests, and increasingly via responses to opinion polls and government-arranged consultations over the introduction of some new laws. The party monitors this clamour to detect possible flashpoints, and it frequently censors dissent. But the government is also consulting people, through opinion polls that try to establish their views on some of the big issues of the day as well as on specific policies. Its main aim is to devise ways to keep citizens as happy as possible in their daily lives. It avoids stickier subjects such as political reform or human rights. But people are undoubtedly gaining a stronger voice…

Opinion polls today cover a vast range of subjects. The biggest growth in demand for them is driven by the Chinese government itself, says Yuan Yue who set up a private company, Horizon Research and pioneered commercial polling in China… ([and] who is a party member)… [W]hat Mr Yuan describes as “customer satisfaction surveys” by local governments are used “very extensively”…

Horizon’s Mr Yuan says he can ask almost anything these days, but he avoids the most politically sensitive subjects… Last year he conducted polls on attitudes toward pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and even about the country’s most senior leaders—but he is guarded about who commissioned him and what he found. Most polls for the government are not made public…

But even to report a poll, as state-run media do almost daily, gives weight to the notion that public opinion matters. It is a message that is sinking in among citizens and fuelling demands for more responsive government. “People are more and more clear about their rights and about what they can express,” says Mr Shen. That is a trend the party would ignore at its peril.

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