Vincent Capone

Who’s to Blame for China’s Growing Trust Deficit?

Pedestrians on Shanghai’s busy Nanjing Road. A recent report blames urbanization as a key driver of China’s trust deficit. (IceNineJon/Flickr)

Is China facing a trust deficit? State media seems to be saying “yes.” According to an editorial published yesterday in the print edition of state-run People’s Daily titled “Use Trust to Break the Ice,” a new survey conducted in seven Chinese cities shows that the Chinese social confidence index has fallen below sixty points. As the Chinese Web site RFI explains, this means that fewer than one in five Chinese people believe the majority of people in their society are trustworthy, while fewer than three in ten people believe that strangers can be trusted. The People’s Daily reported that experts attribute this drop to social transformation in the ways that Chinese people interact.

The article reminisces back to times when Chinese enjoyed their neighborhood, and parents would go out and leave their children and keys to their apartment with their neighbors. In sharp contrast, the article reports, today neighbors install security doors and windows, and the mantra “don’t talk to strangers” has become the norm.

The People’s Daily attributes this breakdown in social interactions to China’s rapid and “inevitable” urbanization, which it says degrades mutual trust. The editorial warns that whether or not the study is accurate, social integrity requires urgent attention: China needs to promote governmental integrity in order to strengthen trust between the people and the entire community. A stronger legal system and laws will help to improve trust. But in order to combat a society of strangers, the people also need to continue to communicate with one another, exchange greetings, and organize neighborhood festivals and activities. Rapid urbanization has upset old bonds, but the editorial puts the onus on individual Chinese to build new ones.

Let the finger pointing begin

While users of microblogging platform Sina Weibo affirmed the massive social changes the article describes, by and large they appear not to believe that the lack of trust begins with the nation’s citizens. Instead, they have pointed their collective finger at China’s ruling government. @萧峵 wrote that if changes need to occur to combat a lack of trust in Chinese society, then “the ruling party and its mouthpiece should do the first self-criticism.” @-流年似梦- summed up the general consensus among commenters:“The government is everyone’s familiar stranger.”

A lack of trust between netizens and government officials has grown deep in recent years, amidst high-profile local-level corruption cases, many of which have been brought to the government’s attention by Web users. These so-called “netizens” have taken it upon themselves to actively ferret out examples of Chinese officials living beyond their means and advocating for citizens wronged by those who purport to represent them.

Transparency International, a global coalition fighting against government corruption, gave China a score of 39/100 on its corruption perception index, which ranks China 80 out of 176 countries.

Most netizens commenting on the People’s Daily’s post denounced officialdom as the cause of alienation in modern China. @晨依思 remarked that the government was the “root cause of the problem” and that society should “now look to officials” to fix it. @瑟调琴弄 asked, “If the rulers are untrustworthy, how can you build integrity?”

Some agree with the People’s Daily’s argument that a stronger legal system would improve trust in society. @段郎说事 wrote in support, “Apply the rule of law, use the system to resolve social alienation.” But a larger number believe that strengthening the legal system shouldn’t aim to correct problems among the people, but should fix problems within government. @hjk4321-1 wrote, “If you want to work with iron, you must be tough yourself.” The phrase means that one must be ideologically sound to perform arduous work.

With trust waning in Chinese society, Web users seem to agree that neighborhood parties and friendly greetings are not going to be enough to combat the problem. If China hopes to achieve a strong level of trust among its people, the government would do well to listen to netizen calls to increase government transparency and strengthen ties between officials and the people. As Weibo user @草根皆尘 put it, trust is “based on mutual trust; we first need to remove the mask.”

[h/t Bill Bishop]

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Vincent Capone

  • John D. Van Fleet

    Sadly, this reporting angle plays into the hands of the CPC, painting corruption and mistrust of the government as more recent phenomenon. Compared to the Mao decades, the government is less murderous, less corrupt and vastly more transparent. What we see now is less an increase in corruption than an increase in the visibility and reporting of corruption. The Sichuan earthquake killed about 1/3 of those that died in Tangshan in 1976 but was covered as the national tragedy it was, while Tangshan was silenced. There were no ‘social confidence surveys’ in 1976, and even if there were, answering one incorrectly would have been a ticket to the laogai.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      I disagree with your assessment of the earthquakes. Wenchuan received more attention merely because it occurred in the digital age, where news of the earthquake instantly galvanized support from people all over China. Tangshan was a completely different story. For one thing, it occurred in 1976 at the culmination of the Cultural Revolution and that political environment alone affected the response of the Party. And Mao’s death followed closely behind the earthquake, effectively removing the disaster from the people’s conciousness. I don’t believe either event has much to do with corruption or transparency, but are merely a product of their time.

      And I would also argue that corruption today is a different corruption from the Mao years. While I agree it is not a recent phenomenon, it is recent in terms of Chinese citizens feeling as though combating corruption is surmountable. In the 1980s and 90s corruption was more rampant, but Chinese did not feel any power in the people’s ability to affect or change corruption, and merely saw it as a product of China’s socialist system. Chinese social media alone is evident of the radical change corruption has gone through in the peoples’ minds.

  • http://www.kalanstar.com/ KopyKatKiller

    “Some agree with the People’s Daily’s argument that a stronger legal system would improve trust in society. @段郎说事 wrote in support, “Apply the rule of law, use the system to resolve social alienation.””

    That would work if the judicial system were above the Party. China’s problem is that the Party is above everything. It results in authoritarian r”rule by law” where the law will be applied to whomever whenever the powerful (the Party) want to get something.