Plenary Session I

Implications of Public Opinion in China for Global Engagement

This session identified three central themes for studying public opinion in China. The first theme that the panelists covered was the growing nuance in studying Chinese political opinion. Researchers previously considered individual informants, households, and working groups as their primary sources of opinion. These days, however, experts aim to disaggregate public opinion on support for the Chinese government to better analyze the individual factors influencing opinion outcomes. Additionally, panel members expressed interest in disaggregating the role of emotions and identity to figure out how manipulatable these factors are in shaping public opinion. In terms of obtaining such data, panelists highlighted market research firms as good outlets to ask political questions in nonpolitical contexts.

The second topic focused on understanding top-down public opinion. Top-down public opinion involves studying the state’s efforts to orchestrate consistent, even if not coherent, narratives. Bottom-up public opinion, on the other hand, looks at sources of opinion among the populous. In particular, panel members stressed the importance of disaggregating how the state wants to influence public opinion. The state determines students’ political education, which greatly influences their socialization and how they respond to world events. These dispositions shape individual worldviews and go on to inform public opinion at large.

Panelists recognized cultural security as an important tool for Beijing in determining political opinion through top-down methods. Cultural security and the issues that surround it act as defensive measures to insulate the Chinese population from outside influences. In times of distress, the state can rely on cultural issues to align public opinion with its own preferences. Furthermore, cultural and social issues generally exhibit high opinion stability over time, making them a safe bet. Given this topic’s importance, panel members expressed interest in research exploring how the CCP deals with cultural insecurity.

Finally, the panelists turned to discussion about how public opinion can act as a constraint against the state. The Chinese government’s shifting policy strategies are a testament to its leaders’ knowledge that they cannot sell whatever they want to sell. Therefore, public opinion is a constraint in determining government strategies. Although political opinion is malleable, worldviews imbued with years of education and socialization cannot be changed on a dime. Panelists noted, however, that populist leaders in today’s globalized world can comment on far-off events and manipulate public opinion in their favor without creating deliverables for themselves. They also discussed whether public opinion and behavior matter as constraints in the Chinese context. Finally, panelists expressed interest in exploring multidimensionality in Chinese political opinion. Understanding which issues group together and move in a bundle—as well as which issues constrain others—will be crucial to improving the academic community’s perceptions of Chinese public opinion.