Original artwork by Laura van Tartwijk. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Public opinion, as defined by Britannica, is what most people think about something: a product of social interaction and communication which often directly interacts and influences government and political processes. In order for a phenomenon to be considered public opinion, scholars assert four conditions must be met: (1) there must be an issue; (2) there must be a significant number of individuals who express opinions on the issue; (3) there must be some kind of a consensus among at least some of these opinions, and (4) this consensus must directly or indirectly exert influence (Davidson). The manifestation and function of public opinion in Western democracies is well understood; however, public opinion in The People’s Republic of China, which is governed by the Communist Party, has a different story. China’s government is notorious for its heavy-handed use of censorship and control. How, then, are the conditions met in order for public opinion to form when expressed opinions and the cultivation of consensus are seemingly stifled? At first glance, it would seem public opinion and the government stand at odds: one not allowing for the other. However, this is not the case: the environment which allows for public opinion to assume its shape and influence has unintentionally been created by the Chinese government (DeLisle, Jacques, et. al.). The state’s struggle and achievement of containing the threat throughout contemporary history provides an intriguing and important angle of understanding Chinese politics.

In the book The China Questions edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi, the fifth question, “What Should We Know About Public Opinion in China?” is answered by Ya-Wen Lei, an assistant professor of Sociology at Harvard University. Within her answer of the question, she discusses the history of public opinion in China and how it functions in relation to the government. The following paragraphs will provide an abbreviated summary and analysis of her assertions.

Despite censorship and the repression of free speech and press, public discourse and opinion in a political context is prevalent. The government primarily views it as a political and social force to be reckoned with. Public opinion in China sees spikes amidst contentious events, also known as “public opinion incidents.” Within the discussion around a public opinion incident, an overarching conversation forms around social problems in addition to public demands for the government’s accountability. In the United States, public opinion is measured through polls and understood by social scientists and media as the aggregate of individual opinions. Conversely, public opinion polls do not give rise to contentious events in China, nor do they constitute important social and political forces.

During the 1980s amidst China’s economic reform, the prevalence of public opinion was growing. Common grievances at this time included inflation, restrictions on political participation, and student’s limited preparedness of graduates for the new economy. These issues led to the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989, which were student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, greater accountability, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech — now better known as the Tiananmen incident, as the student-led demonstrations were met with martial law. Automatic rifles and tanks fired at the demonstrators, resulting in a bloody massacre of human lives and a rerooted fear of voicing public opinion (Cottrell).

Nine years after the incident, the state forced newspapers to turn commercial. They became dependent on revenue for survival, and played a more active role in facilitating the formation of public opinion as the role of journalism was driven by economic factors. The commercialization of Chinese media outlets resulted in the acknowledgement and response to public opinion by the central government for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Public opinion was fairly well contained during the short period of time between 1998 and 2005, before the introduction of the Internet. The people’s exposure to knowledge and their understanding of public opinion incidents grew.

A public opinion incident mostly forms within a three-step process. First, a few mass-media outlets or individuals on the internet expose an issue. Secondly, discussions of the matter ensue between online users, facilitating the cultivation of wide-spread opinions on certain matters. Lastly, the traction that a discussion around an issue gains opens the floor to numerous actors (mass-media outlets, major Internet companies, individual citizens, Internet users, journalists, lawyers, NGOs, activists, public intellectuals and opinion leaders) to participate in shaping the public agenda and producing public opinion incidents.

The kind of issues that generated public opinion incidents have changed over time. Issues related to the law (e.g. pollution, food safety, government corruption) have mostly been the cause of public opinion incidents. However, a variety of issues have been able to cause a stir. In the 1990s nationalist concerns and sentiments were highly discussed, whereas the time between 2003 and 2014 marked a growth in the voicing of problems associated with disadvantaged groups, such as peasants and workers.

In the 1980s, the Chinese government began to see public opinion as a critical instrument through which it could oversee local government officials and business actors — Zhao Ziyang promoted this idea, and called this “legal supervision” and “supervision by public opinion.” Though public opinion has been supported by the government, it is important to keep in mind that the type of public opinion the Chinese government supports is contained public opinion — meaning it is controlled and guided by the Chinese government.

While the government continues to suppress, censor, and control the manner in which public opinion manifests, the very platform on which it can exist is a result of the introduction of the Internet, commercial media, and a formal system of law, which was all instituted by the government. In order for the development and implementation of a modern legal system to be successful, informed citizens are needed who understand the processes which create the social and political environment in which they reside. Lawyers and journalists are necessary to employ these fields, and within the knowledge they can acquire and share, they hold a great ability to facilitate the formation of public opinion incidents. The crackdown on public opinion under the Xi regime has had mixed results. Networks of lawyers, journalists, activists, and public opinion leaders that enabled public opinion incidents have largely been disbanded. It is important to note that, therefore, the Chinese government has unintentionally created an environment that allows for public opinion to form and take hold, which stands at odds of maintaining the level of control desired in order to run the regime in accordance to their standards.

The primary claim that Ya-Wen Lei, author of the chapter “What Should We Know About Public Opinion in China?” makes is that the Chinese government views public opinion as a political and social force to be reckoned with. The emerging court of public opinion has rendered the Chinese government more responsive, but it has also triggered severe crackdowns on actors seen as contributing to public opinion incidents.

It is important to understand that the power of public opinion in authoritarian regimes rests with its ability to contest the regime’s political legitimacy — “the degree to which a state is viewed and treated by the citizens as rightfully holding and exercising political power.” The Chinese government has a variety of mechanisms in place that work to identify public sentiments before a display of collective dissatisfaction (e.g. protests) manifests. For instance, the Party Affairs Department at every university issues monthly reports on the opinions of professors and students on various subjects. These reports are collected and summarized into analytical “situation reports,” which are then given to top leaders (Zhang). Additionally, a number of government agencies, such as Horizon, collect survey date on public opinion. Thirdly, an extensive domestic surveillance mechanism to identify local sentiments on contentious issues is maintained by the Public Security Bureau (Reilly, 34).

While the democracy in the United States is flooded with opinions and informations, the scarcity of institutionalized outlets for the free expression of public opinion on political issues in China creates a high level of intensity in the narrow places they exist. The qualifications for an issue that can stir activism and online debate are not high: a single sensationalist media story, a few individual activists, or a single inflammatory event can bring about a powerful expression of public opinion (Reilly, 36).

It seems evident that rather than public opinion functioning as a measure of change, the Chinese government measures and monitors shifts and traction of public opinion as a way to identify in which area they must leverage or offer a slight compromise in order to prevent a greater public outcry or rejection of the regime. Public opinion is used as a way to identify how to shift focus, power, and media attention points to aid the furthering of the regime’s agenda. This differs from the manner in which it is functioning in Western democracies, where public opinion drives political processes and can alter a nation’s agenda.

Works Cited

Cottrell, Roger. Tiananmen Square. Minerva Press, 1997.

Davison, W. Phillips. “Public Opinion.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Mar. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/public-opinion#ref258750.

DeLisle, Jacques, et al. The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Reilly, James. Strong Society, Smart State: the Rise of Public Opinion in China’s Japan Policy. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Rudolph, Jennifer M., and Michael Szonyi. The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Zhang, Xiaoling. The Transformation of Political Communication in China: from Propaganda to Hegemony. World Scientific, 2011.

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