Survey: Half of Chinese like US ideas on democracy

BEIJING — People in China are increasingly worried about corruption, inequality and food safety, according to a survey that also found that about half of Chinese like American ideas about democracy.

Chinese citizens have become far more concerned about domestic quality-of-life issues over the past four years, the Pew Global Attitudes Project report on attitudes in China found.

The new attitudes highlight the challenges China’s new leadership will face when it assumes power in a once-in-a-decade transition next month. China’s runaway growth in recent decades has led to a yawning gap between rich and poor and worsening pollution. The Communist Party has said repeatedly that pervasive corruption threatens its hold on power.

Most Chinese say they are better off financially, according to the Pew survey, but inflation remains their top concern, with 60 percent saying it’s a “very big problem,” though that figure was down from 72 percent in 2008.

Half of the respondents said corrupt officials are a major problem, up from 39 percent four years ago. The gap between rich and poor was the third biggest concern, with 48 percent of respondents citing it, up from 41 percent in 2008.

Concerns over the safety of food and medicine have increased the most. In 2008, 12 percent said food safety was a major problem; this time, after numerous food scandals involving products from baby powder to pork, the number more than tripled to 41 percent.

Quality of life issues are coming to the foreground in China as average incomes rise and leisure time increases, said Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, who wasn’t connected to the survey.

“People have to live with them on a daily basis,” he said. “When one was too busy making a living to get bothered by them in the past, less attention was paid to them. Now that the overall standard of living has improved and individuals have more scope to slow down and reflect a bit, the poor quality of life becomes more of an issue.”

The survey released Tuesday indicated a small increase in the embrace of U.S. democratic ideas — up to 52 percent, from 48 percent in 2007 — though it was unclear whether that reflected a real increase, because the difference was smaller than the poll’s margin of error.

A decrease in the number of people rejecting American democratic thought was more dramatic, down to 29 percent from 36 percent in 2007.

Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, said tightening state control over dissidence in the past five years has prompted many Chinese to become frustrated with their political system, but he doesn’t think they are ready to press for Western-style democracy.

“While the appeal of Western democracy has been enhanced, Chinese people have no intention and they haven’t the political will to challenge the existing regime,” Cheng said. “Chinese people understand that their living standards have been improving in the past 30 years and more and they still expect further improvements in the coming decade.”

The research by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center also found that a growing number of Chinese are concerned about China-U.S. ties. A quarter described the relationship as hostile, up from 8 percent two years ago. Meanwhile, confidence in President Barack Obama to do the right thing in world affairs slipped from 52 percent to 38 percent.

Pew said the survey was based on face-to-face interviews with 3,177 respondents between March 18 and April 15. It gave a margin of error of 4.3 percent. The poll represents approximately 64 percent of China’s adult population, and the sample was disproportionately urban. China prohibits foreign polling organizations from surveying Chinese directly, so Pew obtained the poll data from Horizon Research Consultancy Group, a respected Beijing-based polling company.

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