Why Chinese People Obey the State: Does the Asian Barometer Survey Hit the Bull’s-Eye?

Shu-Shan Lee

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Why Chinese People Obey the State: Does the Asian Barometer Survey Hit the Bull’s-Eye?
It is common for researchers to draw on data from Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) to study political obligations in China. Accordingly, they report that the majority of Chinese citizens endorse the idea of unconditional obedience and that this popular support constitutes an obstacle to China’s democratization (Shi 2000; Kuan and Lau 2002; Shin 2012). I argue that this conclusion is flawed by offering a methodological critique of the ABS. Beyond this, I conduct an in-depth interview in Qufu (曲阜), China, to demonstrate the necessity for the ABS to revise the very survey question designed to probe political obligation in China, a revision which is essential to further our understanding of Chinese politics.
First, in the ABS’s surveys in China, its interviewers have established little rapport with their interviewees. This may lead respondents to answer in socially desirable ways, especially when the survey questions are politically sensitive. As a result, the respondents might publicly express agreement but privately disagree that they owe absolute obedience to the state. Indeed, scholars who do their fieldwork in China remind us that establishing trust between a researcher and participants is a necessary condition to conduct politically sensitive research in China. If the issue of trust is left unaddressed, researchers run the risk of gathering inaccurate data (Solinger 2006; Tsai 2010).
Second, the ABS question which measures political obligation is double-barred. This question asks respondents whether “government leaders are like the head of a big family; we should all follow their decisions.” This survey question is two very different queries masquerading as one. The first question asks whether the “government leaders are like the head of a family.” The second adds to this issue of identity a question of total obedience: “we should all follow their decisions.” Problems arise, for instance, when a survey participant agrees that the government leaders are like the head of a family, but nevertheless disagrees that he should follow all of their decisions. It also may be the case that a respondent feels that she should obey the decisions of her leaders without agreeing with the other construct. Analytic problems arise if the survey researchers do not know which query leads to respondents’ answers to the question (Fowler 1995).
Finally, the ABS study of political obligation in China is problematic because the survey questions are close-ended. A simple choice of “disagree” or “agree” to questions specifically designed to probe Chinese attitudes about political obedience offers little information to interpret respondents’ reasons for why they believe they should obey the state. If we wish to understand Chinese people’s sense of their duty to obey the state, we need to understand this issue in its complexity and nuance.
To better understand the limitations of the ABS, I undertook qualitative study in China. To address the methodological flaws I identify above, I split the problematic survey question into two separate queries. I then conducted in-depth interviews in Qufu to allow respondents to narrate more fully their moral arguments about political obligation. Before asking for an interview, I also make an effort to build trust with potential participants to alleviate the social desirability bias.
My findings run contrary to the result of ABS. While survey researchers report the popular endorsement of absolute obedience in China, nearly all my interviewees insisted that their political obligation should be grounded in the consent of the governed. The Qufu study suggests that the ABS should redesign its survey question regarding political obligation and offer a wider range of possible responses. If after revision the ABS would also identify the popularity of consent among Chinese people, we could better argue that we have hit the bull’s-eye of political obligation in China. Most importantly, when the results are consistent between qualitative and quantitative studies, we may realistically expect that consent-based political obligation is gradually taking root in the minds of Chinese citizens and will encourage them to demand democratic change in the future.

Fowler, Floyd J. 1995. Improving Survey Questions: Design and Evaluation. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Kuan, Hsin-Chi, and Siu-Kai Lau. 2002. “Traditional Orientations and Political Participation in Three Chinese Societies.” Journal of Contemporary China 11 (31).
Shi, Tianjian. 2000. “Cultural Values and Democracy in the People’s Republic of China.” The China Quarterly 162.
Shin, Doh Chull. 2012. Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Solinger, Dorothy J. 2006. “Interviewing Chinese People: From High-Level Officials to the Unemployed.” In Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thøgersen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Tsai, Lily L. 2010. “Quantitative Research and Issues of Political Sensitivity in Rural China.” In Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies, edited by Allen Carlson, Mary E. Gallagher, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Melanie Manion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Convention of Asia Scholars
Place of Publication Chiang Mai, Thailand
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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