Only a third of mainlanders know the name of their mayors, but more than half would vote for them if free elections were held, a survey of about 6,300 people in 30 major cities has found.
Nearly 52 per cent of those surveyed said the incumbent mayors would have their support in a direct election, but only 32 per cent could name their mayors, the Horizon Research Consultancy poll found.
It polled permanent residents aged between 18 and 60 in all the four municipalities directly under the central government - Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing - and all provincial or regional capitals except Lhasa in January.
It found that in all cities except for Shanghai, Chongqing and Nanjing , the percentage of people supporting the mayor was higher than the percentages of people who knew who the mayor was.
Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based lawyer and political commentator, said the findings implied that mainlanders tended to mind their own business as long as the authorities did not disrupt their lives.
"As long as the authorities don't arrest them or impose overly high taxes, they would pursue a peaceful, safe social order," Chen said, adding that such political indifference was also tied to the suppression of freedom of speech and demonstrations.
Sheng Guangyao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, said the existing performance-appraisal system for mayors could partly explain why they were so little known to residents.
Because cadres in higher- level governments decided on the appointment of mayors, rather than the people they governed, mayors tended to focus on issues that would please their superiors, he said.
On the other hand, however, the fact that more than half of the people surveyed chose to support their incumbent mayors meant that, in general, people were happy with their governments, Sheng said.
Such sentiment is largely dependent on economic growth, he noted, saying "the result would be totally different if the economy declines".
The mayors of Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chongqing were those best known by residents, the poll found.
While the mayor of Chengdu enjoyed the highest support rate, about 81 per cent, the mayor of nearby Chongqing was the most unpopular, with a support rate of about 37 per cent.
In an analysis of Horizon's annual polls on mainland mayors since 2002, the company's deputy general manager, Jiang Jianjian, wrote that the average support rate for mayors in surveyed cities had always been above 50 per cent, with a peak of 72 per cent in 2010.
However, the proportion of people who knew who the mayor was had stayed below 40 per cent.
"When the government and the people ignore each other, it will persist and become political inertia, hampering progress in China's public administration."
But one encouraging change, he said, was that in its first mayor survey in 2002, about a quarter of those polled chose "I refuse to answer" when asked whether they supported their mayor or not, while nowadays, with more people realising that ordinary people can comment of officials, only 2 to 3 per cent of people refused to answer the question.