Chinese governance seen through the people’s eyes

Author: Tony Saich, Harvard University

While radical changes have taken place in both China’s economy and society, political reform has lagged.

The central leadership seems well aware of the problems confronting it and has responded with calls for better and more transparent government and for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to monitor itself and the actions of government more effectively.

The key challenge is whether the CCP can develop the governing capacity to deal with the multiple challenges it faces (inequality, social unrest, unemployment, effective urbanisation, environmental degradation) or whether these questions will rise to a level where they overwhelm the administrative capacity to deal with them. The leadership rejects ‘Western-style’ political structures and thus it is incumbent on them to develop the kind of institutions within the framework of one-party rule that can not only maintain economic growth but also deal with social tensions, provide sufficient transparency to reduce corruption, and make officials accountable to the citizens who pay their wages.  Liberalisation will have to be at least a partial substitution for full democratisation.

Since taking power in 2002–2003, General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have committed the administration to improving the quality of governance and, in particular, improving the lot of those who have not benefitted so well from the reforms to date. Managing this process would be a tall order for any system. One important question is what the Chinese people think of the nation’s governing capacity. It is reasonable to presume that, if citizens are more satisfied with government performance and the provision of public goods and services, the administration will have a greater capacity for policy experimentation and enjoy a residual trust that may help government to survive policy errors.

To investigate this, I surveyed some 4,000 respondents on their attitude towards government. There are two sets of findings with implications for governance and reform.

First, how satisfied are citizens with their government? With substantial political reform ruled off the agenda anytime soon, policy is focused on improving the quality of local officials and instilling in them a more upright, moral vision of what a good official should be — a Confucian notion in all but name. Policy initiatives have been introduced to help those at the bottom of the pile.

Two clear trends are visible. Citizens ‘disaggregate’ the state and, while they express high levels of satisfaction with the central government, satisfaction declines with each lower level of government. While in 2009, 95.9 per cent were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government, this dropped to 61.5 per cent at the local level (see graph below).

In China, local governments provide almost all public services and the fact that satisfaction levels decline as one gets closer to the people is a worrying sign. However, satisfaction with lower levels of government has risen steadily since Hu and Wen took over leadership, rising from 43.6 per cent. In the villages, the highest and the lowest income earners are the most satisfied. This would suggest that the wealthy have done well under the current system, while the poorest are clearly responding to such Hu-Wen policy initiatives as the abolition of the agricultural tax or the extension of medical insurance and basic welfare guarantees. This notwithstanding, the trend is distinct from that in many developed economies, where satisfaction levels tend to rise as government gets closer to the people, indicating that people in other countries feel that they may have greater control over the decisions of local government than Chinese citizens do.

So what do Chinese citizens want their government to do? Citizen satisfaction with the provision of specific public services reveals some interesting insights that are helpful for thinking about what local government should concentrate on to improve satisfaction levels.

Essentially, citizens are satisfied with those services that the traditional model could deliver well (water and electricity supply, road and bridge construction, family planning) but want the government to concentrate on providing solutions to those challenges that derive from the shocks of the transition to a market-influenced economy (job creation, labour and medical insurance, environmental health). It is unlikely that local governments will raise more funds to provide these services, with the consequence that they will have to reduce costs, contract out services or find new partnerships and focus more clearly on the kinds of services local governments can and should provide.

While the consequences of these findings may raise concerns about the quality of local governance, it is not necessarily bad news for the central government. In 2009, 30 per cent of respondents thought that their officials were incompetent, and 40 per cent that they just looked after their own interests. Corruption is always ranked as the biggest problem. The low levels of satisfaction might be an indicator of possible social instability, but the survey suggests that citizens do not see the problem as lying with the central government but rather with poor implementation at the local level or the incompetence or venality of local officials.

Percentage of citizens relatively satisfied or extremely satisfied with government
(Author’s own surveys 2003–2009)

Tony Saich is Professor and Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This article also appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, Governing China’.

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  • Thanks for posting this. What was the demographic make-up of the people surveyed?

  • Pekka Korhonen

    Yes, and where in China was the survey made – if the information can be published? Extremely interesting results, anyway.