Tea Leaf Nation
What’s China’s Mood Under Xi? New Data Gives a Glimpse
Anti-corruption measures are popular, but other events are garnering a collective shrug.
China, under the presidency of Xi Jinping, has invited a number of breathless pronouncements about the state of the country. Chinese media regularly conjure the “Chinese Dream,” one of Xi’s favored phrases, which means whatever readers want it to mean but generally signals a rejuvenated nation finally ready to snatch the long-denied mantle of global leadership. In the West, commenters have asked whether growing anti-Western and nationalist voices aren’t meant as a panacea for a populace increasingly fed up with the corruption, pollution, and wealth inequality that have bedeviled everyday life for years — and whether the ruling Communist Party can long survive without fixing them.
As Xi spend the evening of Sept. 25 being feted in the White House, his supporters and critics continue to debate whether Xi’s China is one that’s markedly more unified or fractious, prosperous or precarious, than it was before he took power in November 2012. The question is impossible to answer, particularly given the difficulty of probing public opinion without Chinese government interference. But data compiled in April and May by the Washington, DC-based think tank Pew Research Center through conversations with 3,649 Chinese people suggest that the country is reacting to recent events with a shrug of its collective shoulders, rather than euphoria or despair.
In general, the data suggests, Chinese people remain concerned in the same proportions about the same issues that faced their country before Xi ascended: Corrupt officials, air and water pollution, and food safety. In the spring of 2012, for example, corruption officials rated as a “very big problem” among 50 percent of respondents; that number fell to 44 percent in spring 2015. Air pollution was a “very big problem” to 36 percent then; it’s at 35 percent in 2015. Food safety was a big problem to 41 percent then; it’s to 32 percent in 2015. In particular, the wealth gap, for years a subject of very public hand-wringing, seems to have retreated as an issue of public concern — in Spring 2013, a troubling 48 percent saw it as a “very big problem.” Now 33 percent say they do. Concern about rising prices has also dropped, with four times as many people saying it was “not a problem at all” or a “small problem” in 2015 than had so answered in 2013.
Then again, inflation might be tamed in part China’s economy has noticeably slowed in recent years under Xi. Official statistics show GDP growth falling to 7.3 percent in 2014, well below the heady ten-plus percent growth rates of China’s economy heyday — and even that number, many observers suggest, may be too high. Yet a supermajority of Chinese surveyed say they feel their economic situation is “somewhat good,” while one in five think it’s “somewhat bad” and a small number — six percent — think it “very good.” These results are broadly consistent with answers given not only in spring 2012, but also in 2008 and 2007. There’s more relatively good news for Xi: 77 percent say they are better off than they were five years ago, a slight uptick from 70 percent in 2012. Notably, these results would not have incorporated violent gyrations in China’s stock market that began in June. But while that plunge was a black eye for meddlesome Beijing technocrats, most Chinese people have no direct stake in it.
The same consistency obtains for Chinese nativist and xenophobic attitudes. Many observers in Beijing have noted a rising tide of anti-Americanism, one fanned by state media reports and growing tensions between Chinese and American interests. But across the country, while suspicion of foreign influence is indeed high, it’s no higher than it was under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. 79 percent of those surveyed say they “completely” or “mostly” agree that “our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence,” but then again, 81 percent felt that way in 2009. 66 percent lament that “our traditional way of life is getting lost,” but 68 percent already felt that way as far back as 2002.
Are Chinese people optimistic about the capacity for the country’s major and well-acknowledged problems to go away? There is no consensus, with roughly even numbers expecting pollution and wealth inequality to get better, and to get worse, over the coming five years. But in a good sign for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, 63 percent say they expect the corruption problem to get better in that time period; only 18 percent say they anticipate it getting worse.
Of course, some respondents felt they could not respond candidly in China’s tightly controlled environment — although it helps that they were asked about issues that Chinese media and public intellectuals regularly engages with relative freedom, as opposed to the more contentious question of baseline satisfaction with Xi or the party he leads. To the extent unspoken pressures were present, they would have also been present under Hu, when respondents gave broadly similar responses.
Moreover, none of this data is intended to be predictive — taken alone, it does not and perhaps cannot indicate whether China is internally “stable” or “unstable,” or whether its ruling party is due for decades of further rule, or a speedy collapse. But it’s certainly fair to say the latest public opinion data indicates that China is about as stable, or unstable, as it was a few years ago.