The average American might be surprised to learn that people in China feel fairly free to express their political opinions and, what’s more, many are not satisfied with specific civil and political rights. But these are among the surprising conclusions a University of Vermont political scientist has drawn from a research project he recently presented at three Asian universities.
“Basically in China people are free to say their opinions,” said assistant professor Matthew Carlson, “as long as you don’t organize. If you organize you’re likely to get in trouble.”
Carlson’s research is based on in-depth personal surveys conducted by Tokyo’s Chuo University from 2005 to 2007 in 29 Asian countries, ranging from the most democratic to the worst authoritarian regimes in the region, comparing responses with democracy scores released by Freedom House, an independent, nonpartisan organization in New York. In China, 2000 people were interviewed.
"If you compare Chinese responses against those of other Asian societies, there is a considerable degree of criticalness expressed about political and civil rights," said Carlson.
Carlson’s work delves into the complexities of how populaces perceive these conditions in their country. Respondents were asked questions ranging from satisfaction with the electoral process to their evaluations of corruption in the political system. He argues that while much attention is focused on expert opinion, perception of human rights by everyday people is unknown.
"Most of the studies," Carlson said, "focus on established democracies. We know much less about what people think about human rights in democratizing or authoritarian countries."
To the extent that conclusive patterns emerged, Carlson found that in the most democratic countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, citizens were more likely to be critical of their governments while those living under the most oppressive regimes, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, people were the most positive.
In China the results were mixed, sometimes puzzling. In general, citizen levels of satisfaction were much higher than the ratings given to China’s government by Freedom House, although not so high that they suggest a fear to speak candidly. And yet 30 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction in the electoral process, a number which appears quite high given the lack of direct elections at the national level in China. "If citizens don’t have accurate information about actual political conditions, it is difficult to offer a meaningful or even critical opinion," Carlson said.
Carlson, who presented his findings this summer in Beijing, Taipei, and Seoul as a recipient of the East Asia Institute’s Fellows Program on Peace, Governance, and Development in East Asia, argues that the limited access to information in China, rather than fear of reprisal, is one explanation for the apparent disconnect between public and outside expert opinion.
“Anything that challenges the notion of building this great, strong China,” Carlson said,” the elites are fearful about. The media and internet are highly controlled.”
As for the 2008 Summer Olympics China [hosted], Carlson says that we have to view China’s human rights situation in both the short term and the long term. In the short term he sees questionable evidence that hosting the Olympics has improved conditions.
"Anything that could tarnish the image of the Olympics," Carlson said, "political authorities have swept under the rug. They’re using the glory and prestige of the Olympics to show Chinese citizens and the world that China is strong and to further legitimize their continued rule over the country."
In the long term, Carlson said, political science is not always accurate when it comes to making predictions. But, he admits, "They’ve unleashed this event. The question is, how much longer can the communist party keep accurate information about domestic political conditions and the outside world from getting in?"