Levels of political interest
As mentioned earlier, the Chinese peasantry has historically been viewed as a conservative social and political force. It is often perceived as ill-informed and lacking the necessary cognitive knowledge about public affairs and political events. To what degree are Chinese peasants interested in politics (that is,
national and local political affairs) and what factors affect their political interest? These are the two central questions that will be addressed in this chapter. A study of these questions carries both theoretical and practical implications. The importance of political interest as psychological involvement in politics and public affairs has been well observed and documented by western scholarship.2 Psychological involvement in politics and public affairs is regarded as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for active political participation. Verba and his associates observed in their empirical cross-national study that those who were more interested in politics outparticipated those who were apathetic to politics.3 Similar findings were also reported by scholars studying the former Soviet Union.4 For example, in their empirical study of mass political participation of the former USSR, Bahry and Silver found that those who were more interested in politics were more likely to engage in conventional and/or unconventional political activities.5 Therefore, the theoretical implication is that such a linkage between the level of political interest and political participation may also exist in China, a transitional society. A practical implication is that if there is a high level of political interest among the Chinese peasantry found in this study, it may indicate a certain degree of political uneasiness on the part of the peasants and may lead to higher levels of peasant participation in conventional and/or unconventional political activities in southern Jiangsu province. Given the intricate relationship between the level of political interest or
psychological involvement in politics and likely participation in political activities, it becomes important that we understand who are more likely to have higher levels of political interest and what factors may lead someone to be psychologically involved in politics. Levels of political interest as a separate dependent variable have, unfortunately, not been sufficiently studied in an empirical fashion by China scholars both inside and outside China. In
the limited number of empirical studies, political interest was either treated as an act of political participation6 or as an independent variable.7 Few of them explore the degree and sources of psychological involvement in China. A survey conducted by Chen and Zhong in the mid-1990s focused on mass political interest and apathy levels and contributing factors.8 They found that there was a relatively high level of political interest among Beijing residents, contrary to the prevalent perception that Chinese people were politically apathetic and shifted their attention to the pursuit of materialism after years of constant political campaigns between the 1950s and the 1970s. They further found that age, gender, income, political status, political efficacy, and life satisfaction had significant impacts on the levels of political interest among Beijing residents. However, this study was conducted in an urban setting and in the capital city of China.