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