Communiqué, Volume 5: Chinese Perceptions of Government Revealed

January 15, 2010

Since 2002, Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center, has conducted detailed surveys of Chinese satisfaction with different levels of government. As he details below, his research reveals stark differences in government approval ratings based on government level as well as respondents’ region and income level.

Annual surveyAn annual survey of some 4,000 citizens drawn from across China reveals that general satisfaction with government has improved since the new leadership took over the reins of power in 2002. However, serious problems remain. While satisfaction with the national government remained very high (just over 90 percent), satisfaction at the lowest levels of township, village, and street committees rose to 61 percent in 2007 from a low of 44 percent when the surveys began in 2003. Yet only 11 percent stated that they were extremely satisfied with their most local level of government.

In addition, unlike in the US, the level of satisfaction declined the closer government got to the people. While 38 percent were extremely satisfied with the national government, just 16 percent were so with the county level. This is important because in China it is the local level of government, the county, and even below, which provides most public services. In rural China, those with lower incomes tend to be more satisfied with the national government, perhaps attesting to their support of the State Council’s policies to help rural China in general and the rural poor in particular. However, in terms of the village and township government, it is the higher income earners who are most satisfied, perhaps attesting to the close relationship between wealth and power in local China.

This concern is reflected in views about the work attitude of local officials, where 37 percent of respondents thought that officials used public funds to wine and dine; 27 percent thought they only had a superficial understanding of the problems people faced; and 30 percent felt officials should have more contact with ordinary people. Again there has been improvement. Sixty-two percent felt that local officials were cordial (47 percent in 2005), 70 percent thought they were knowledgeable (60 percent in 2005), but still only 46 percent of respondents thought local officials cared about ordinary people (up from 38 percent in 2005). In fact, in terms of whose interests local officials were seen to serve, respondents were almost equally divided between thinking their work benefited ordinary folk and those who thought that they just looked after their own interests (44 to 42 percent). Across the range of questions, rural dwellers had a lower evaluation of their officials than their counterparts in urban China. In major cities, only 11 percent thought that their local officials were ignorant but 20 percent of villagers thought this to be the case.

Respondents were clear about what they wanted their governments to work on. Those areas of work that citizens place high importance on but experience low satisfaction with government performance relate most closely to the social and economic problems faced by households during the transition. They are relatively satisfied with the services that the old planning system was good at providing such as road and bridge construction, and electricity and water supply. Citizens really wish that government would concentrate on job creation and providing basic guarantees to protect against the shock of the transition to a market economy. Labor and medical insurance are high priorities for all residents. Punishing corruption was a major concern for all citizens.