By: Zhenhua Su – suzh [at] zju.edu.cn, Yanyu Ye, Jingkai He and Waibin Huang – huangwb [at] zucc.edu.cn
In a political system, trust is of great importance for both legitimacy and effectiveness. A government with low levels of political trust will be more likely to face difficulties in finding public support for and a higher likelihood of public opposition against its policy initiatives, hence less likely to be successful in carrying out its aims. The Chinese government has long received a higher level of popular trust in its central authority than in its local governments, which some scholars call “hierarchical government trust.” What explains this phenomenon in China?
Hierarchical government trust is not unique to China. In Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, the public also generally find their respective central governments more trustworthy than local governments, whereas the reverse pattern can be found in United States of America, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Such variations in patterns of political trust correlates to regime type: authoritarian regimes such as China, Vietnam and Malaysia have central governments outperforming local ones and citizens in democracies such as Taiwan and Japan see just the opposite.
Among studies of China, existing analyses identify three sources of political and hierarchical trust: economic development, cultural traditions and propaganda. But increasing evidence points to the relative importance propaganda transmitted through medium such as television and the Internet. Economic modernization and Chinese deference to cultural traditions, in comparison, do not appear to significantly contribute to hierarchical government trust. Thus, hierarchical government trust in China is a phenomenon produced by the central government through propaganda and institutional design.
By maintaining hierarchical trust, the central government aims to boost its own authority, deflect popular discontent toward local governments, resolve social conflicts, reinforce central control of subordinate governments, and ultimately maintain the regime’s stability. While it is possible to predict hierarchical government trust will gradually diminish as economic development continues and more frequent use of the Internet in China fuels a more diverse range of political views, hierarchical trust remains a central tool, along with more visible censorship policies, for the Chinese central government’s rule.
About the Authors:
Zhenhua Su is an associate professor in the College of Media and International Culture, Zhejiang University, China. His primary research fields include political development, democratization, contentious politics, and political communication. His works have appeared in some international journals such as Journal of Democracy, Asian perspective, African and Asian Studies and in a number of leading Chinese academic journals.
Yanyu Ye is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Affairs at Zhejiang University, China. Her research fields are social change and democratization.
Jingkai He is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. His primary research field is comparative politics, with specific interests in authoritarian regimes, political parties, and formal and informal political institutions. His work has been published in Journal of Democracy and African and Asian Studies.
Waibin Huang is an assistant professor in the Department of Statistics, Zhejiang University City College, China. His recent research focuses on quantitative methods and social statistics.
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- Zhenhua Su, Yanyu Ye, Jingkai He, and Waibin Huang, “Constructed Hierarchical Government Trust in China: Formation Mechanism and Political Effects,” Pacific Affairs 89, no. 4 (December 2016), forthcoming issue.
- Lianjiang Li, “Reassessing Trust in the Central Government: Evidence from Five National Surveys,” China Quarterly 225,no.1 (2016): 100-121.
- Wenfang Tang, Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Lianjiang Li, “Hierarchical Government Trust,” Twenty-first Century Bimonthly 131, no. 6 (2012): 108-114. (Chinese). 李连江, <差序政府信任>,《二十一世纪》, no.6 (2012):108-114.
- Tianjian Shi, “China: Democratic Values Supporting an Authoritarian System,” in How East Asians View Democracy, eds. Yun-han Chu, et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 209-237.
See our other memos on China.