The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did the pandemic shake Chinese citizens’ trust in their government? We surveyed nearly 20,000 people to find out.

Children walk outside the Forbidden City during the Labor Day holiday in Beijing on Saturday. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority in many Western countries think China handled the outbreak poorly. Their views toward China have become overwhelmingly negative. U.S. citizens’ confidence in President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs has also significantly declined.

But has the pandemic shaken the long-standing support of Chinese citizens for their government? Empirical research, including mine, has shown that the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic has actually boosted its legitimacy. Here’s what we found.

We surveyed nearly 20,000 people across China

I conducted a large-scale online survey in the immediate aftermath of the reopening of Wuhan in late April 2020. The survey differed from many other surveys that are simply posted through online platforms that yield no details on who has access and who has responded. I designed an innovative approach that captures aspects of face-to-face survey approaches.

In collaboration with 17 Chinese academics, we recruited more than 600 students from 53 universities across China to conduct one-on-one interviews online. This helped ensure that the survey was widely distributed across all regions. We assigned each team leader a unique access code for his or her survey link, so we could protect and monitor each survey. Respondents were assured that their responses would be anonymous.

In the end, we interviewed 19,816 individuals from 31 provinces or provincial-level administrative regions across China. The resulting sample was roughly comparable to the census in terms of age and urban-to-rural ratio, but it did have higher participation rates of female and more educated respondents.

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The pandemic boosted citizen trust in their government

The 2018 World Values Survey reported that 95 percent of Chinese citizens said that they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in national government. Comparatively, about 69 percent felt the same way about their local government.

Since the Chinese government already enjoyed very high levels of trust from its citizens before the pandemic, did this trust increase? Our surveys asked about trust in government at five different levels — the township, county and city level as well as the provincial and national levels.

The data show that Chinese citizens’ trust in their national government increased to 98 percent. Their trust in local government also increased compared to 2018 levels — 91 percent of Chinese citizens surveyed now said they trust or trust completely the township-level government. Trust levels rose to 93 percent at the county level, 94 percent at the city level and 95 percent at the provincial level. These numbers suggest that Chinese citizens have become more trusting in all levels of government.

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Our survey also asked respondents how their trust in government had changed since the outbreak. Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said that they had become more trusting in the national government since the pandemic started, with 48 percent reporting no change and only about 3 percent said they had become less trusting. The vast majority (63 percent) reported no change in their trust in local government, 30 percent reported positive change, and just 6 percent reported they were now less trusting in their local government.

Chinese citizens often report hierarchical government trust — this means they trust national-level institutions more than institutions at the local level.

Despite the high levels of trust we recorded across all levels of government during the pandemic, this pattern holds: Trust drops from 98 percent at the national level to 95 percent at the provincial level and down to 91 percent at the township level.

High levels of trust mean a lot

So what does this all mean? Understanding the impact of political trust requires making a distinction between diffuse and specific trust. Diffuse trust is moral, value-driven and reflects a deep-seated orientation toward political community as a whole. Specific trust, in contrast, is based on how citizens evaluate government outputs and performance.

Of course, survey respondents may have an individual response pattern that reflects their diffuse or specific orientation toward trust. Some respondents may trust all levels of government equally, some may trust some levels more than others, while others may distrust all levels of government.

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The research shows the patterning of answers helps identify when trust denotes a critical evaluation of institutional performance. Critical trusters have variability in their answers — they’re making a specific assessment of the performance of each government level. In contrast, diffuse trusters trust all levels, while cynics distrust all levels.

Our data suggest that only about 1 percent of Chinese citizens have expressed cynicism about the government during the pandemic. About 55 percent of Chinese citizens are diffuse trusters and 44 percent are critical trusters.

Critical trust is based on citizens’ reasoned evaluation of the performance from each specific level of government during the pandemic. If trust is specific, then low trust might merely represent criticism and high trust could reflect citizens’ satisfaction with government performance.

Among the 44 percent of respondents who have placed more trust in some levels more than others, the mean level of trust is 89 percent. The fact that trust is high among Chinese citizens who look at government performance with a critical eye suggests that high government trust in China during the pandemic reflects Chinese citizens’ true satisfaction with their government performance.

Of course, caution is certainly warranted about how Chinese citizens rate their government. Still, the high levels of trust among Chinese citizens — and what we know about citizen surveys in China — suggest that these results cannot be simply reduced to a misrepresentation out of political fear. These findings are consistent with what other survey scholars have repeatedly shown. Experimental studies also show Chinese citizens do express their genuine attitudes toward their government without fear.

In China, like other countries, a crisis may activate collective angst that makes people “rally around existing institutions as a lifebuoy.” The increase in Chinese citizens’ trust in government I have shown here could indicate a rally ’round the flag phenomenon. To track how the pandemic may change how Chinese see their government over the long term, however, will require collecting more data.

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Cary Wu is a sociology professor at York University in Ontario, Canada. Find him on Twitter @carywoo.