This article appeared on the New York Times’ China website on Sept. 16. Tai Qiuqing and Chen Dingding report on a survey of Chinese students studying abroad in the United States. The translation is on the left, and the original article is on the right.

Feature image by Getty Images

Tai Qiuqing and Chen Dingding are writers for the New York Times Chinese Website

One hundred years ago, Chinese exchange students traveled far across the seas carrying a grave awareness of a need to save the nation. When they returned with ideas of democracy and science, they started the New Culture Movement. Today’s Chinese students, although no longer burdened with the heavy responsibility of ensuring the salvation and survival of their nation, are still facing the contradictions and conflicts of Western and Eastern civilizations and are rethinking their own character while observing others. Among the numerous differences between the strong cultures of China and America, politics is not only considered to be one of the most notable distinctions, but also a mysterious and sensitive topic. So, while living under the constant propagation of democracy in the United States, what kind of understanding do Chinese exchange students have of this system? What kind of criticisms do they have of the work of China’s government?

In June 2013, we launched a questionnaire-based survey aimed at Chinese students studying in the United States. During the course of one month, we sent out a total of more than 15,000 questionnaires through the mail and received 2,585 in response. Our participants were distributed across more than 60 of America’s top 100 universities, with ages varying from 15 to 50. Among them, over 90% are currently enrolled as students; the remaining have already graduated and are now working, but still maintain a school mailbox. Their time spent in the U.S. ranges from less than one year to more than ten years. As far as we know, this is the largest scale survey aimed at overseas Chinese students to date.

How do students view Western democracy?

The content covered in the Western democratic system survey is extremely broad, including topics such as elections, multi-party governance, and freedom of speech. This questionnaire was primarily aimed at understanding the students’ integrated evaluation of different aspects of the democratic system. We begin by asking the respondents to provide an overall appraisal of the extent of democracy in both China and the United States. The results of the survey indicate that only 5.7% of participating students believe China is a democratic nation, while 51% of participants believe China is not democratic. At the same time, the number of students who believe that the United States is a democratic nation reached 86.9%.

This huge gap touches upon problems associated with the students’ understanding of democracy, because if we look at the overall substance of Western democratic systems, a China that does not implement multi-party governance and direct elections is certainly not a democratic nation. But the respondents also expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation in China, even in regards to the substance required of a socialist democracy. To give an example, 49% of students believe China’s human rights situation is either poor or very poor, and 57% believe China’s political reform is making slow progress. Across all of the questionnaires, a fair number of people questioned whether China is implementing the core value of socialist democracy: “The people are the masters.”

However, while the students were dissatisfied with China’s political reform, the survey results are not optimistic towards the prospect of the Western democratic system taking root in China. When asked to comment on whether or not the Western democratic system is suitable for China, only 33.4% of students expressed approval, 25.4% expressed opposition, and 41.2% felt it was difficult to determine. Although a majority of respondents believe the U.S. is a democratic society, there are also many people aware of a number of abuses in its democratic system, such as the enormous influence of media and funding on elections. In the views of some respondents, if China were to put on the garb of democracy, it would become infected by some of the maladies of Western society, so much so that this so-called ‘Chinese democracy’ would have no real meaning.

More importantly, many students believe that China’s national conditions are unique, and it cannot indiscriminately imitate the Western experience. For example, 72.3% of students in the survey believe the Confucian political concept “Let the ruler be the ruler, and the subject be a subject”[1] still holds relevance. How to sow the seeds of equality and freedom in the soil of accumulated feudal political tradition is a challenge for both those in power and the common people. Aside from this, with a population as large as China’s, for 1.3 billion people to come to a common consensus is likely to lower administrative efficiency. Some students raised the example of India—known as the world’s largest democracy—whose construction of public facilities has been delayed for several years as a result of tedious and lengthy debates from all parties, causing endless grievances from the people. Additionally, the overall condition of the Chinese people still needs to be improved. “Although democracy is good,” University of Illinois graduate Yin stated, “I think it should be promoted on a large scale only after Chinese people have reached a certain degree of overall ideological understanding. Under the current conditions, pushing for full democracy could be like some African countries, creating mob rule and intensifying social unrest.”

The influence of the Western democratic system on China would be complex. From a positive point of view, 75.2% of students believe that if China were to implement Western democratization, freedom of speech would improve. 53.3% believe that official corruption would take a turn for the better, and 43.4% believe that people’s livelihood would be improved. However, 49% of students believe that after China implements the Western democratic system, the economy may experience some turbulence. 32.4% believe individual ethnic groups and regions may seek independence, and 49.6% believe society would become a source of instability. In a word, the road to the democratization of China will not be a smooth one. It will run into setbacks, and it will incur social costs and sacrifices.

It is worth mentioning that students do not believe that the benefits brought to China by the Western democratic system would be realized on the macro socio-economic level, but it could allow the people to fully express their opinions, safeguard their rights and interests, and implement the supervision of rights and the inspection of cadres. “I believe that the democratic system would not accelerate China’s economic development,” UC-Berkeley graduate Wang stated, “but if the people can decide to some extent which officials should stay or go, then incidents like dead pigs and contaminated milk powder would become less common.” In their view, the people, rather than the state, should be the direct beneficiaries of the democratic system. Because of this, although democracy would bring a few problems in the short term, there are still 63.2% of students who believe that this political system has inherent value.

How do students evaluate government work?

Like the democratic system, government work is also a concept rich in subject matter. We focused on students’ evaluation of the government’s implementation of drafted policies. Overall, 54.4% of students expressed satisfaction or high satisfaction with the Chinese government’s policy implementation.

We discovered that there are two factors that are most important in influencing students’ appraisal of political work. The first is the length of time they have spent living in the U.S. Among students who have lived in the U.S. for less than 3 years, 58.5% expressed satisfaction with Chinese government work. But among those who had lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, this number dropped to 37.8%.

The cause of these results is multi-faceted. On one hand, the longer one has lived in the United States, the easier it is to be influenced by the Western media’s reporting on China and to become more unfamiliar with the changes occurring within China. Du, a student studying at a New England university, said: “I have been researching China in the U.S. for 5 years, but I am gradually feeling that studying China in the West is not reliable. Because what I obtain is mostly second-hand information filtered through the media, I am feeling more and more ‘out of touch’.”

On the other hand, because migration is certainly not a random decision, participants who choose to live in the U.S. long-term may experience a lower degree of satisfaction with the Chinese government. Our study revealed that, among those respondents who wish to return to China, 66.4% are either satisfied or very satisfied with the government’s work. Meanwhile, among the respondents who do not desire to return home, this ratio was only 35.3%.

The second factor influencing students’ evaluation of the government is age. The study revealed that among students born in the 1970s, 45.8% expressed satisfaction towards the government’s work. The satisfaction rating of those born in the 1980s was 52.4%, while among those born in the 1990s, this number increased to 57.2%. Comparatively speaking, older students possess a greater understanding of the work done by former government administrations. Their evaluation of the current government is lower, suggesting that the implementation of some aspects of government work could produce more problems when compared with the past. However, from another perspective, because the students returning to China generally feel greater satisfaction towards the government, the approval of government work by those born in the 1990s may indicate that future China will welcome back a massive flow of human talent.

Apart from this overall evaluation, we also asked students about their general satisfaction with the implementation of policies related to maintaining national unity, promoting economic development, safeguarding livelihood, fighting corruption, protecting freedom of speech, and maintaining social stability. The results show that students are most satisfied with the government’s performance in promoting economic development; in total 59% expressed that they were satisfied or highly satisfied with this aspect. Second was preserving national unity and social stability; 42.9% and 39.3% of respondents respectively felt satisfied with the government’s work? In contrast, the students’ satisfaction on the subjects of protecting freedom of speech, improving the livelihood of the people, and fighting corruption was very low, at 8.8%, 6.7%, and 5.2%, respectively.

The three aspects receiving the students’ lowest satisfaction ratings—corruption, livelihood, and freedom of speech—are all closely related to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens and are also most vulnerable to subjective perceptions. Meanwhile, the three aspects receiving their highest satisfaction ratings—economic, national, and social stability—are difficult to have first-hand experience with while living in the U.S. and are easily influenced by public opinion. On the point of policy implementation, the government has indeed invested greater efforts into its macro-level work, using an enormous fixed investment to ensure economic growth and huge sums of stable funding to protect stability, as this is the foundation of the Communist Party. In regards to the work that is directly related to the masses, new policies cannot be effectively implemented due to the malfeasance of local officials as well as the absence of control mechanisms. Interestingly, the three aspects that cause people the least satisfaction are precisely the areas in which students abroad can study in the Western democratic system and bring back as a positive influence to China. Therefore, how to use knowledge of the outside world to resolve China’s actual problems is a lesson worthy of reflection for those in power.

Translated by Gloria Furness

1.  This quote comes from a reference to the Confucian Analects 12.11

在美中国留学生如何看待中西方政治制度

邰秋卿、陈定定为纽约时报中文网撰稿

100年前,中国留学生带着深重的救国意识远赴重洋,将德先生和赛先生带回国内,掀起了一场新文化运动。今天的中国留学生,虽不再背负救亡图存之重任,却依然面对着东西方文明的矛盾与冲突,在凝视他人时反思自身的特质。在中美两种强势文化的众多不同中,政治既算得上是最显著的区别之一,也是一个神秘而敏感的话题。而生活在一直宣扬民主政治的美国,中国留学生对这一制度有着怎样的理解?他们对中国政府的工作又有着怎样的评价呢?

2013年6月,我们发起了针对在美中国留学生的问卷调查。通过邮件形式,我们在一个月内共计发放了15000多份调查问卷,回收问卷2585份。我们的受访者分布于60多所美国排名前100的大学,年龄从15岁到50岁不等。他们中超过90%是在读留学生,其余的已毕业工作,但仍保留了学校邮箱。他们在美的时间从小于1年到大于10年不等。据我们了解,这是迄今为止针对国外中国留学生最大规模的问卷调查。

留学生如何看待西方民主制度?

西方民主制度涵盖的内容十分广泛,包括选举、多党执政、言论自由等方面。此次问卷主要了解的是留学生对民主制度这些不同方面的综合评价。我们首先询问了受访者对中美两国民主程度的总体评价。调查结果显示,仅有5.7%的受访留学生认为中国是一个民主国家,有51%的受访者认为中国并不民主。而与此同时,认同美国是民主国家的留学生达到了86.9%。

这巨大的差距固然涉及到留学生对民主的理解问题,因为如果按西方民主制度所涵盖的内容来看,不实行多党执政和直接选举的中国确实不能算是民主国家。但即便对于包含在社会主义民主概念中的内容,受访者对中国的现状也并不满意。举例来说,有49%的留学生认为中国的人权状况糟糕或十分糟糕,57%认为中国政治改革进程缓慢。而在个别采访中,不少人也对社会主义民主的核心——“人民当家做主”是否在中国得到了落实而提出质疑。

不过,在不满的同时,调查结果对西方民主制度扎根于中国的前景却也并不乐观。在被问及西方民主制度是否适用于中国时,仅有33.4%的留学生表示赞同,25.4%表示反对,另有41.2%表示很难说。尽管多数受访者认为美国是一个民主社会,但也有不少人意识到了其民主制度的一些弊端,例如媒体和金钱和对选举的巨大影响等。在部分受访者看来,如果中国披着民主的外衣,实际却感染了西方社会的一些弊病,这样的所谓民主并没有实际意义。

更重要的是,不少留学生认为中国国情特殊,并不能照搬西方经验。举例来说,调查中有72.3%的留学生认为“君君臣臣”的儒家政治观念仍具有现实意义。如何在这片有封建政治传统积淀的土壤上播撒平等和自由的种子,对执政者和普通民众来说都是挑战。此外,中国人口众多,想要让13亿人达成共识很可能会降低行政效率。有留学生提到印度的例子,这个号称世界上最大的民主国家,其公共设施建设议案常因各方冗长的辩论而拖沓数年也不能得以执行,令民众叫苦不迭。而且,中国国民的整体素质仍需提高。“民主当然是好的,”毕业于伊利诺伊大学的尹同学说道,“但我觉得应该在中国人的整体思想素质达到一定程度后大规模推进,现行条件下推行完全民主可能会像某些非洲国家一样,造成暴民政治,加剧社会动荡。”

西方民主制度给中国带来的影响将是复杂的。从积极方面来看,有75.2%的留学生认为如果中国实行西方民主化,言论自由将得到改善,53.3%认为官员腐败程度将有所好转,43.4%认为民生问题会得到改善。不过,有49%的留学生认为在中国实行西方民主制后,经济可能会出现动荡,有32.4%认为个别民族和地区可能会寻求独立,有49.6%认为社会会出现不稳定因素。总之,中国民主化的道路不会是坦途,它会遇到挫折,也需要社会付出代价,作出牺牲。

值得一提的是,留学生认为西方民主制度给中国带来的好处并不体现在宏观社会经济层面,而是可以让人民充分表达他们的意见、维护他们的权益、落实权利的监督和干部的考核。“我认为民主制度并不能让中国经济发展更快,”毕业于加州大学某分校的王同学说,“但是,如果民众能在一定程度上决定官员的去留,那么诸如死猪和毒奶粉这样的事件就会更少发生。”在他们看来,人民,而非国家,应该是民主制度最直接的受益者。因此,尽管民主会在短期内会给中国带来一些问题,仍有63.2%的留学生认为,这一政治制度有其自身价值。

留学生如何价政府工作?

和民主制度一样,政府工作也是一个内容丰富的概念。我们着重考察的是留学生对政府制定政策的落实情况的评价。总体而言,有54.4%的留学生对中国政府的政策落实情况表示满意或非常满意。

我们发现,影响留学生对政府工作的评价的最主要因素有两个。首先是他们在美国生活的时间。在美国生活3年以下的留学生中,58.5%对政府工作表示满意。而在美国生活了10年以上的留学生中,这一数字下降到37.8%。

造成这个结果的原因是多重的。一方面,移民在美国时间越长,就越容易被西方媒体对中国的报道所影响,对中国发生的变化也越陌生。在新英格兰地区一所大学学习的杜同学说:“我在美国做中国研究5年,但逐渐觉得在西方研究中国不靠谱。因为我得到的大都是被媒体过滤了的二手信息,这让我觉得自己越来越‘不接地气’。”

另一方面,由于移民并不是一个随机决定,选择长期生活在美国的受访者可能本身对政府的满意度就较低。我们的调查发现,在有意愿回国的受访者中,对政府工作满意或非常满意的占66.4%;而在没有意愿回国的受访者中,这一比例仅为35.3%。

第二个影响留学生对政府评价的因素是他们的年龄。调查显示,70后留学生中有45.8%对政府工作表示满意,80后对政府的满意度是52.4%,而到了90后,这一数字增加为57.2%。相对而言,年长的留学生对往届中国政府的工作有着更多了解。他们对现任政府的评价较低,意味着和过去相比,政府在一些方面的工作落实可能出现了更多的问题。不过从另一个角度看,由于选择回国的留学生一般对政府满意度较高,90后对政府工作的肯定,也可能预示着未来中国将迎来更大规模的人才回流。

除了总体评价,我们还询问了留学生对政府在维护民族团结、促进经济发展、保障民生、打击腐败、保障言论自由、以及维护社会稳定这六方面政策落实的满意程度。结果显示,留学生满意度最高的是政府在促进经济发展方面的表现,共有59%表示满意或非常满意。其次是维护民族团结和社会稳定两项,分别有42.9%和39.3%的受访者对政府工作感到满意。相比之下,留学生对政府在保障言论自由,改善民生,以及反腐败这三方面的满意度极低,分别只有8.8%,6.7%,和5.2%。

留学生对政府满意度最低的三方面——腐败、民生、言论自由——都非常贴近普通民众的日常生活,也最容易被主观感知。而他们满意度较高的三方面——经济、民族、社会稳定——则不容易有一手体验,受舆论影响较大。从政策落实的角度来看,政府对宏观层面的工作确实投入了更多力度,用庞大的固定投资规模保持经济增长,用巨额维稳经费维护社会稳定,因为这些是共产党执政的根基。而在和民众更直接相关的工作中,出台的政策则由于个别地方官员的渎职以及缺乏监督机制而不能得到有效的执行。有趣的是,这最不能令人满意的三方面工作,恰恰是留学生看来西方民主制度能给中国带来积极影响的地方。因此,如何取外来之精髓以解决中国的实际问题,值得执政者借鉴思考。