Over the past year, international media reports on Chinese politics frequently centred around the oppression of minorities, public surveillance measures, and China’s increasingly aggressive stance on the international stage. Common headline stories included forced labour in Xinjiang, the incremental removal of liberal democratic rights in Hong Kong, and increasingly frequent shows of force in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea with what is now the world’s largest navy. The non-democratic regime in Beijing has increased its grip on the Chinese population as technology has improved, making surveillance, censorship, and the notorious social credit system increasingly efficient. However, while in Western democracies such an authoritarian government would be seen as unacceptable, public support for the Chinese government’s autocratic measures remains strong. 

Independent surveys and research have confirmed this trend, and so it is imperative to understand why the Chinese government maintains strong support from the populace, with approval ratings commonly well above what Western democracies could only hope to achieve. According to the Edelman Global Trust Barometer of 2020, the Chinese government enjoyed the trust of 90% of its citizens – the highest level in the world.  The governments of Germany, the U.S., and the U.K. only received 45%, 39%, and 36% of trust, respectively. Another long-term Harvard study found the approval rating of the Chinese central government at 95%. To understand why the average Chinese citizen is so content with their leadership, one has to recognize the success of its domestic policies in recent decades. 

经济发展 — The Economy

While most advanced economies have seen real wages stagnate for decades, in China both income and living standards have risen dramatically. The Chinese economy is now 40 times larger than what it was in 1990, which has come with real improvements in living quality for virtually all Chinese citizens. In a 2015 Pew Research Poll, 96% of Chinese respondents agreed that they were better off than their parents had been. 77% said their current living standards were better than just five years prior, and 72% felt satisfied with their financial situation. This ongoing improvement in living standards has also translated into optimism for the future. Another poll found that 85% agreed that children currently growing up will have an even better life. Meanwhile, a median of 65% of respondents in advanced economies believes their children will not have a better life in the future.

China’s global economic influence has also skyrocketed. While its share of global GDP was less than 2% in 1990, within three decades it has shot up to above 16%. According to another Pew poll that surveyed 44 countries, 89% of Chinese are satisfied with where their economy is going, compared to a median of only 34% in the developed world. There are many good reasons for this optimism. The London-based think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has recently revised its prediction that China will overtake the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy as early as 2028. Given that the leadership in Beijing has such a tight grip on the Chinese economy, it is perhaps understandable that many attribute China’s successful rise to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

爱国主义 — Patriotism

People do not only care about their living standards improving. China is also a country of patriots. There are several ways to assess patriotic sentiments in academic surveys, including measuring statements such as considering one’s country better than others, feeling pride in national achievements, or preferring to be a citizen of one’s country over other countries. Over 80% of Chinese responded positively to these questions, indicating that they are among the most patriotic citizens in the world. In a 2015 WIN/Gallup survey of 64 countries, which measured patriotism by citizens’ willingness to fight for their country, 71% of Chinese respondents answered affirmatively. This figure is higher than any other developed nation, except for Finland (with 74%). In comparison, only 44% of U.S. respondents said they would be willing to fight for their country.

Given China’s history with its Century of Humiliation prior to the takeover by the CCP, the deep-rooted insecurity and wish for China to become a great nation again might seem reasonable. The CCP knows how to exploit this. China’s history of humiliation in the form of semi-colonialism imposed on the country by Western colonial powers is a central part of the school curriculum, in which the CCP is portrayed as China’s saviour from colonialism and cultural annihilation. This mostly works well with China’s increasingly nationalistic public. However, nationalism is a double-edged sword. While the government’s approval rating tends to improve when it takes a hard stance on foreign policy issues, Chinese citizens can easily view the failure to properly condemn Western powers when China’s sovereignty is challenged as insufficiently patriotic in light of the country’s historical humiliation by the West.

Despite a strong censorship system, there is a flourishing online community in China through social media outlets such as Weibo, where nationalistic sentiments and tendencies can be observed. Much genuine anti-regime sentiment was seen circulating on Weibo during the flaring up of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in 2012, when many bloggers accused the Chinese government of not being tough enough on Japan. One public opinion survey found that 53% of respondents were in favour of economic sanctions against Japan, while in another poll with 1.9 million participants, 60% even supported military action to settle the matter. And there are plenty of other historical examples in which the Chinese government appears to take a hard-line stance but is actually walking a fine line between maintaining productive relations with its trade partners and fulfilling its patriotic obligations. However, when the choice is between the deterioration either of relations with a trade partner or of its own domestic approval rating, the CCP will choose to protect the latter, as it did once it became clear that public opinion favoured punishing Japan over the island dispute, rather than maintaining positive relations with one of China’s most important trade partners.

安邦定国 — Peace and Stability

Another reason for the strong support for the government’s authoritarian policies is their apparent efficiency. The 2008 earthquake in which thousands of people died and five million were displaced was a huge tragedy, but within 72 hours over 100,000 troops had been successfully deployed to help rescue survivors and bring the situation under control. The CCP’s swift actions and resolve stood in stark contrast to the failings of the U.S. government during Hurricane Katrina. Another example is the recent implementation of the social credit system, which has received much negative attention across many Western media outlets for the CCP’s attempts to control its population. Nonetheless, a majority of Chinese do support this system because it greatly enhances security and trust in a society where historically fears of being scammed by merchants, business partners, or even one’s own employer run high. China’s relatively successful response to Covid-19 has further increased trust in the government among much of the population, which can live a largely normal life while the rest of the world is in lockdown.

日新月异 – The Future is Uncertain 

This level of optimism and trust in the government’s policies may start to wane once the economy stops expanding. A rapidly ageing population and the lack of a fully-developed welfare state are already taking their toll on the economy and people’s wellbeing, as is Covid’s impact on Chinese society, although the pandemic is unlikely to harm the CCP’s popularity. Despite early failures, measures taken by the government to contain Covid-19 are perceived by the Chinese public at large as highly successful and in contrast to the failure of virtually all democratic countries to stem the virus’s spread. The global pandemic may actually shield the Party from criticism for economic mismanagement. Dampened economic activity in Hong Kong, reduced primary sector production in Xinjiang, a deterioration in business and tourism relations with Taiwan, and global trade disputes may all be direct results of the government’s hard-line nationalist policies, but their negative effect on China’s economy is hard to measure, given that any decline in growth could be attributed to the pandemic. Additionally, its tough stance against foreign powers who seek to undermine China’s rise, and its determination to see through the country’s re-emergence as a great power, cement the Party’s role as the Chinese nation’s protector and saviour.

However, the CCP’s sky-high approval ratings and China’s increasing living standards pose a crucial question: Is this sustainable? China’s economic growth has already been slowing down before Covid-19, and people’s expectations that their children will live even better lives may end up not being met. China’s top trading partners, such as the U.S., Japan, Europe, and South Korea, are also considered adversaries in its historical narrative of humiliation. The Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute is only one of many examples of transnational disputes the CCP is involved in and cannot back down from without failing to meet nationalists’ expectations. Additionally, the Party’s internationally contrarian stance on issues pertaining to human rights violations and territorial disputes threaten to eventually isolate the country. China’s leadership has legitimized itself vis-a-vis the general population through economic success and defending the nation, but what if living standards were to stagnate and nationalistic ambitions end up hurting the average citizen’s pockets? Would a majority of the Chinese people continue to trust the Party’s political guidance, or would they demand to have a say?

Edited by Francesca Chapman; Photo credits: Wen Shao and Pete Linforth, Pixabay and Bud Helisson, Unsplash