chapter  8
6 Pages


Political culture involves fundamentally popular values and beliefs over political objects in a given community. Political scientists have more or less agreed on what political culture constitutes or entails. They also agree that political culture does shape the political behavior of citizens and national political development. However, it is still controversial among political scientists on how political culture can and should be studied. Following the tradition of empirical survey research, this study attempts to capture Chinese peasants’ political thinking on a wide range of issues. Even though the survey was a snapshot and it was conducted in southern Jiangsu province, both the descriptive and analytical findings are revealing and significant in understanding Chinese peasants’ political culture, even though the descriptive findings should not be generalized to the rest of rural China. This survey study shows, contrary to the conventional perception that

Chinese peasants are a politically conservative force, that most rural residents in southern Jiangsu province are quite supportive of core democratic principles such as the popular election of public officials (such as state, county, township, and village leaders), popular participation in politics, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and political tolerance. Most of them are still in favor of democratic elections even if the elected officials may not solve their problems. In fact, the descriptive data show that peasants in southern Jiangsu province are more supportive of core democratic values than urban residents in Beijing. What is even more interesting is that peasants who feel their economic conditions have been improved for the better tended to be more supportive of core democratic principles. Those peasants who support core democratic values are those who favor political reform and market economy. Multivariate analysis also shows that younger and better-educated peasants tend to have more democratically oriented values. The distribution of patterns of democratic orientations shown among Jiangsu peasants is similar to those shown among urban Chinese and people of other countries. This study also reveals that most peasants in southern Jiangsu province

are also in favor of a market-driven economy. The level of support for a market economy among southern Jiangsu peasants is even higher than that found in urban Beijing. Factors that affect peasants’ support for a market

economy include a belief in core democratic values, political efficacy, and education. Specifically, peasants with stronger democratic values, a higher level of political efficacy, and more education tended to be more supportive of a market economy. It was also found in the study that most Chinese peasants in southern Jiangsu province are very interested in national and local politics. More than two thirds of the peasants surveyed cared about national politics while more than 60 percent were interested in local and village politics. However, less than half of them often talk about national and local politics with others. Overall, levels of political interest among southern Jiangsu peasants are comparable to those found in urban Beijing and some other countries. The distribution pattern of levels of political interest among southern Jiangsu peasants is also similar to those found in urban Beijing and the other countries. Older villagers and villagers with higher levels of education and income in southern Jiangsu province showed more interest in politics. What kind of popular support does the Chinese government enjoy from

the peasant population? How legitimate are the Chinese authorities in the eyes of the Chinese population? This study differentiates two types of political support: instrumental

support and diffuse support. Diffuse support, which refers to the emotional feelings and attachment toward a political system, is much more entrenched and remains stable for a longer period of time, while instrumental support tends to be more fluid and short lived. It was found that the Chinese political system enjoys a moderate to high level of legitimacy among southern Jiangsu peasants, which could be explained by a number of reasons, such as China’s strong economic performance and ‘ideological hegemony’. As for instrumental support, however, southern Jiangsu peasants give the Chinese central government only ‘mediocre’ or a ‘passing grade’ in most policy areas. As was shown in the multivariate analyses, regime legitimacy or support and instrumental support are inter-related. People who give high marks to Chinese government performance in policy areas tend to show more affective support for the Chinese political system. However, the flipside of the finding is that decreasing instrumental support can seriously erode Chinese government legitimacy in the future. Findings from causal analyses also suggest that popular support for the current Chinese political regime is most likely to be found among those who are more optimistic about the country’s economic and political future, who are more satisfied with their local government officials, who are economically better off, who are more afraid of socio-political chaos, and who pay more attention to political and public affairs. One important source of political legitimacy comes from democratic elec-

tion. The election of villagers’ committees has become one of the few bright spots of systematic democratization in China in the last three decades. Villagers’ committees were created to fill the power vacuum after the abolition of people’s communes in the Chinese countryside. Since the adoption of the democratic election of villagers’ committees in the late 1980s,

scholars and policy makers in China have always debated the effectiveness and meaningfulness of this democratic practice. Other interesting questions raised include whether Chinese villagers care about villagers’ committee elections and how many of them actually participated in the elections. My survey findings show that less than half of the villagers in southern Jiangsu province actually voted in the village elections. This participation rate is much lower than that which is usually reported in the Chinese media. The low voter turnout for village elections in southern Jiangsu province is probably due to official institutional control and procedural constraints put on these elections. The analytical findings from the study indicate that peasants with higher levels of political efficacy and democratic orientation and a better education tend to stay away from these elections. These findings put a question mark over the democratic nature and meaningfulness of village elections in southern Jiangsu province. Village officials are the foot soldiers of the Chinese government in

governing and implementing its policies in China’s vast rural areas. What they think and what they do directly affect rural stability in China. As this study has shown, there is certain degree of congruence between village officials and regular villagers with regard to political culture and orientation in southern Jiangsu province. Village officials shared with regular villagers a relatively high level of support for core democratic values and civil liberties. What is really striking is that, like average peasants, village cadres are strong supporters for the popular election of public officials. Most village officials, like average villagers, also agreed that China really needed political reform. However, there are also differences between the two groups. Village officials showed more interest in national and local affairs and they participated more in officially sanctioned elections such as the elections of county and township/town people’s congress deputies. On issues concerning societal stability and public involvement in decision-making processes, village cadres tended to be more conservative than the general peasant population. In addition, village cadres indicated a higher level of identification with the existing political system, institutions and official values in China. One of the reasons was probably that more of them were satisfied with the economic and social status improvements during the reform era. Village officials in southern Jiangsu province also gave better grades to central government performance in a number of policy areas. What theoretical and policy implications can we derive from this study

of political culture and participation in rural southern Jiangsu province? As indicated in Chapter 1, one of the goals of this survey study was to apply theories developed in other countries to the case of China. Indeed, findings from this research do confirm many of those theories developed and tested elsewhere. For example, the findings that those peasants in China’s southern Jiangsu province who experienced more economic improvement in their lives tended to be more supportive of core democratic values was in accordance with the generally held proposition (based on Maslow’s theory of ‘hierarchy of needs’) that economic improvement in life leads to

increased support for democracy and civil liberties, a relationship that has been proven true in many other parts of the world. The positive relationship between support for democratic values and a market economy found elsewhere also existed among villagers in southern Jiangsu province. Like in other places, younger and better-educated villagers with a higher level of political efficacy in southern Jiangsu province were also stronger supporters of democracy and freedoms. Western propositions concerning political interest have also found empir-

ical support in the survey conducted in southern Jiangsu province. It was found that basic demographic factors such as age, education, and gender did make a difference if a respondent was interest in politics and public affairs. Specifically, the better-educated older people and men tended to be more interested in national and local public affairs. These findings were consistent with the relationships between a level of political interest and the demographic factors found in similar studies conducted in other countries and in urban Beijing. In addition, theories of political support argue that there is a close connection between instrumental support and affective support. Findings from southern Jiangsu province confirmed that positive instrumental support strengthens people’s affection for the political system. The fact that these positive findings coincided with results from earlier studies in non-Chinese settings and urban China indicated that these causal relationship patterns persist across cultural, political, and geographic divides. However, some other findings in the study were not in line with the theo-

retical propositions developed in other studies. Most noticeably, it was found that in southern Jiangsu province peasants with higher levels of democratic orientation and political efficacy tended not to vote in the village elections, which were seemingly contradictory to findings on voting behavior in electoral studies from other countries. The main explanation for the discrepancy appears to be that the lack of a democratic nature in the village elections in southern Jiangsu province caused concern among democratic-minded voters in their participation in the those elections. Also, unlike findings from studies conducted in the former Soviet Union where younger people are more supportive of market-driven reforms, age does not seem to be a factor in one’s support for a market economy among peasants in southern Jiangsu province. Several major policy implications can be derived from findings in this

study. First, as shown in the study, Chinese peasants in southern Jiangsu province did not lack democratic values, and an overwhelming majority of them favored the democratic elections of public officials at local levels. It is erroneous to say that Chinese peasants are necessarily conservative with regard to democratic culture and present themselves as an anti-democratic force in China. In fact, the level of support for core democratic values among southern Jiangsu peasants was even higher than that among urban residents in Beijing. Since the findings show that people with more education and people who feel their life has improved economically tend to be more supportive of democratic values, it can be expected that the support for core

democratic values in China’s countryside can only become stronger in the future due to the continuing economic and educational development in rural China. The Chinese government has to find ways to meet the democratic aspirations of the Chinese peasantry. It has been shown that the idea of democratic elections is especially popular among southern Jiangsu peasants. They are not willing to abandon elections even if elections can potentially create chaos and instability. In fact, peasants in southern Jiangsu province exhibit more democratic orientation and yearn more for democracy than their urban counterparts in Beijing. However, the voting behavior of villagers in southern Jiangsu province indicated that they would be more willing to participate in village elections if these elections were made more democratic and freer. Most of peasants in southern Jiangsu province were not even willing to give up on village elections even if they could not solve their problems. The Chinese government needs to remove or make sure that local governments remove the constraints put on the villagers’ committee elections so that Chinese peasants can become more interested and participant in these elections. More genuine and meaningful democratic village elections do improve the legitimacy of village authorities and overall stability in the Chinese countryside. Second, the Chinese government should be glad and feel comforted to

know that the diffuse or affective support the current political system in China enjoys among the peasantry in southern Jiangsu province is relatively high. However, the level of diffuse or affective support, as found in the multivariate study, was closely related to the southern Jiangsu peasants’ instrumental support for central governmental policies, confidence in prospective economic conditions, and evaluation of local officials’ behavior. The Chinese Communist Party faces challenges in all three areas. The southern Jiangsu peasants’ poor and mediocre evaluations of Chinese government performance in policy areas such as narrowing the income gap, providing adequate health care, and ensuring job security were alarming and eroded their affective support for the communist political regime. Policies and policy performance do matter in generating popular support and maintaining legitimacy for the political system even in an authoritarian country such as China. The Chinese government clearly has to improve its policy performance to gain support from the Chinese populace. Delivering economic and material benefits to the society as a whole and continued economic growth are crucially important considering that the CCP’s political legitimacy is heavily dependent on eudemonism. In addition, the Chinese central government will also need to discipline

and rein in its corrupt local officials. As shown in my survey, southern Jiangsu peasants were fairly dissatisfied with their local officials in terms of establishing clean government and listening to people’s voices. It is very likely that peasants in less economically developed areas may register higher levels of dissatisfaction with their local officials. The Chinese central authorities do acknowledge the corruption problem at the local level. However, they have yet to find effective ways to address this problem. The root of

the problem is the lack of monitoring mechanisms to supervise local officials properly. In my view it is high time for the CCP to consider using to the full the local people’s congress to check local government and monitor local officials’ behavior. This proposed move does not need any change in the Chinese constitution and does not necessarily lead to the CCP giving up its exclusive ruling power. After all, it has already been stipulated in the Chinese constitution that the people’s congress is the highest decisionmaking body in the country. In order for the local Chinese people’s congress to become a viable and effective body to monitor local officials’ behavior, the local people’s congress has to be given more teeth, and the election of a people’s congress of deputies has to be made competitive, even if it does not sanction the establishment of other political parties. Still another policy implication from this study concerns Chinese village

officials who are most instrumental in implementing government policies and maintaining stability in rural China. Findings from the study showed that there was a high degree of congruence between village cadres and regular villagers in southern Jiangsu province with regard to core democratic values and civil liberties. Village officials in southern Jiangsu province were especially supportive of democratic elections, just like ordinary villagers. However, the findings also indicate that village cadres in southern Jiangsu province were fairly loyal and supportive of the current political system in China, more so than regular villagers. They were also more satisfied with their economic and social standing during the reform era. It is very likely that southern Jiangsu village officials’ loyalty and support of the current political regime in China was related to the material benefits they receive from the system they serve. As mentioned before, village cadres in China are still treated as part of the Chinese Communist Party and state apparatus, even though they are not officially on the state payroll. Village officials in southern Jiangsu province are especially well rewarded financially, owing to the higher level of economic development in that region. As long as village officials are treated well financially and their pay is dictated by the Chinese government, as in the case of southern Jiangsu province, they will be continue to be reliable foot soldiers governing rural China on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Findings from this survey study conducted in southern Jiangsu province

present some major challenges for the Chinese Communist Party authorities. One of them is the governability of China’s rural areas. Given the yearning for democracy by the Chinese peasantry, the Chinese government has no choice but to broaden democracy in rural China. By ‘broadening democracy’ in rural China, I mean the adoption of genuine democratic elections of villagers’ committee and democratic openings at the township/town level so that Chinese township/town officials can be more responsive to Chinese villagers. Genuine democratization at China’s rural grassroots level is no longer a question of ‘whether’, but a question of ‘how’, since it seems to be one of the few ways to lessen the severe problems of corruption and abuse of power and to avoid political calamity in the vast Chinese countryside.