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Public Trust in Government: The Role of the Internet in China

Nov 24, 2014

It may be surprising that Chinese citizens have higher trust in the central government than in local governments whereas the reverse pattern is found in the U.S. I argue that the Internet technologies contribute to the trust-building mechanism that has elevated the public trust in Chinese central government compared to the local ones. Through public opinion monitoring and guiding, post-totalitarian authoritarian regimes like China can exercise the “strength” of “soft disciplines” to gain trust.

According to a recent Gallup poll, the US trust in government has drastically declined, reaching at or near record lows this year in 2014. When it comes to the trust in different levels of government, U.S. citizens have more trust in local governments than in state governments. The comparison between the state governments and the executive branch of federal government may vary depending on the state, while the perceived wisdom seems to remain that U.S. citizens are “are more trustful of governments and politicians who are close to the people, while distrusting far-off elites”. This may explain why the trust percentage number in the executive branch of the federal government in 2014 is 43% whereas a similar indicator by Gallup for state governments in 2013 is on average higher at 58%. Still, the overall trend is that both state and federal governments are losing public trust in the U.S.

In China, the opposite patterns appear to be true. The overall public trust in governments is reported to be rising, according to the Annual Report on Social Mentality of China (2014) and the Report of Social Development in China (2013) by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Although according to 2012 and 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer results respectively, the Chinese trust in governments declined from 88% in 2011 to 75% in 2012, from 81% in 2013 to 76% in 2014, China’s trust level has been higher when compared to other countries. For instance, the same 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer results indicate the trust in the U.S. governments declined from 53% to 37%.

What puzzles political scientists in particular is that Chinese citizens have more trust in the central government than in the provincial and local governments. Mainland Chinese political scientists debate various interpretations on this phenomena called “center-strong-local-weak” (Yāng qiáng de ruò 央强地弱) in public trust. Another research conducted by a Taiwanese scholar, based on the 2012 World Values Survey in China, confirm the “hierarchical government trust” with 75% of respondents had higher trust in the central government than in local governments. The difference is also confirmed by the levels of government satisfaction measured in a survey report conducted by Horizon Research. It shows that, in the last decade, the public satisfaction in central government has been around 80 (out of 100). It also shows that the lower the level of government, the lower the public satisfaction is.

The relationship between the central and local governments in China has been an interesting research topic, Lieberthal (1992) called it "fragmented authoritarianism" and Landry (2008) conceptualized it as “decentralized authoritarianism”.  I would like to argue that the role of Internet has been instrumental to centralize the control by the central government so that the fragmented and decentralized local powers can be monitored and disciplined.

Taiwanese political scientist Hsu Szu-Chien succinctly explains how the Party Disciplinary Inspection system reform works to supervise local leading cadres, including “[s]oliciting information from the masses and media.”

Here one must recognize the struggle between the central party-state and local governments in a post-totalitarian authoritarian regime. First, post-totalitarian authoritarian regimes have kept some of their totalitarian institutions, such as state-controlled mass media, the party-state and secret police, but with clear declines in the level of ideological orthodoxy, repression, dependence on personalized top leadership, and mass mobilization. China can be categorized as such. Second, the “strength” of “soft discipline” is the routinized monitoring and supervising of local governance by the central party-state to penalize bad or corrupt governance.

Indeed, as observed by a Chinese Internet researcher David Herold, during 2006 and 2007, “Chinese netizens seem to have accepted these conditions to a large extent, and often explicitly support the central government while attacking local officials, businesses, institutions, etc.” Since 2009, the Online Public Opinion Monitoring and Measuring Unit of the People's Net published various reports including quarterly reports on the capacity of local governments to respond to "internet mass incidents" based on six parameters: “government responsiveness, transparency of information, government credibility, restoration of social order, dynamic responsiveness, and accountability of government officials.” Internet and social media such as Weibo becomes the new venue for “soliciting information from the masses.”

The emerging and growing “public opinion monitoring sector” further testifies such centralization mechanism of the Internet being used as soft discipline measures mainly by the central government. To meet the demand, public opinion monitoring software and “analysts” are produced. The most successful example is Online Public Opinion Monitoring and Measuring Unit, which alone has an annual revenue of close to $33 million (200 million RMB).  

As rightly highlighted in the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer results, the most trusted source of information over media in China is online search results. The trust building mechanism in China is thus likely to be increasingly more dependent on the Internet, facilitated by social media and the public opinion monitoring sector. As the recently-established Central Network Information Office becomes the new (centralized) Internet authority of China that is speculated to be independent from the Central Propaganda Department, we may begin to witness the beginning of trust-building mechanism through more information monitoring and guiding online in China.

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