Five times more conservatives than liberals in China, says survey

Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has surprised even the study's author

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 2:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Chinese urban residents have become more conservative, cynical and pragmatic in their attitudes towards politics in the last quarter of century, a study has found.

Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published last week, has surprised even the study's author.

Some 38.1 per cent of those surveyed held more conservative values, were more critical of overall individualism and leaned towards the "left", a term that commonly refers to those more patriotic, according to the study by scholar Zhang Mingshu, director of the political culture research centre at the academy.

Only 8 per cent leaned to the "right", supporting more individual freedoms and a smaller government, and were more critical towards the Communist Party's legacy. The rest of those polled were categorised as centrists, neither left nor right.

"I was surprised," Zhang told the Guangzhou-based liberal newspaper Southern Weekly. "But if you calmly look around you - not only among intellectuals, but also in your hometown, if you go on the streets - you'll see that this ratio is fundamentally accurate."

Zhang surveyed 1,750 adult urban residents across the nation on their political views, their attitudes towards participating in politics and their knowledge about politics.

The study, titled "What kind of democracy do Chinese people want", follows up on an April 1989 survey conducted by Zhang in the wake of the Tiananmen uprising, which saw hopes for further political reforms squashed by the People's Liberation Army's barrels and tanks.

Zhang said the survey, based on answers he collected in 2011, was more cautious in its scope than his last. As political debate has remained a sensitive topic, he said he had made an "effort not to cross the line".

For Zhang, scholars have become less idealistic, spearheading a trend in today's society.

"If you want to use one word to describe the situation of China's mainstream intellectuals, it's cynicism," he said. "As soon as they transgress, they vested interests will suffer and they can only modestly bow to the system."

"The survey shows that Chinese citizens are basing their political judgments and political behaviours less on ethics and idealism, and more on safeguarding their personal interests," Zhang said.

For 15.3 per cent of those surveyed, the idea of democracy meant regular elections and selecting national leaders through multiparty competition. About 67 per cent said they had a positive attitude towards participating in politics.

People beyond their 40s and 50s tended to lean more to the left than younger people, who tended to be at the centre and the right. More educated people also tended to be more at the centre and the right. 

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, said the poll accurately reflected the changing attitudes on the mainland towards politics.

"Leftists are not necessarily Marxists," he said. "They want to see a more equitable distribution of income."

But "people have become more cynical. They are less inclined to take an active part politically and tend to concentrate on improving living standards", said Cheng. "If you are extremely unhappy, you just try to emigrate."