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The Credibility of China’s Government Is Dangerously Low

[Editor’s Note: Several articles in the Chinese media have criticized the government of China, saying it has lost its credibility with its citizens, who now have no trust or confidence in the authorities. For the majority of the people, casting doubt on whatever the government says has become a habit, as the followings excerpts from some articles show.]

1. “Please Try to Let Me Trust You” [1]

“Many online top stories, including the ‘Bleached Mushroom’ investigation case in Beijing and Yueqing’s case in Zhen Jiang [2], have become a mirror reflecting the trust factors of the local governments and news media. Today, the sentiment of ‘mistrust’ has penetrated into the very fabric of Chinese people’s lives: when we Chinese eat, we can’t trust the safety of our food; when we travel, we can’t trust the ability or sincerity of the railroad industry to solve the problem of the shortage of tickets; when we go to the hospital, we can’t trust that the doctor won’t over-prescribe medication; when we go to court, we can’t trust that the judiciary system will make a just decision. …

“We were full of trust in everything in the past: the leaders, the revolution, the end of capitalism, the bright future of communism … but now we can’t trust anything: what the local government’s say, media reports, the people next to us, and particularly ‘it has become the habit of most people to question whatever the government says.’

“Nowadays, suspicion and alerts have become the way of life for Chinese people, because there are so many unimaginable incidents constantly taking place. If we talk about where we live, there are buildings that have collapsed or are unstable, tilted, and poorly built; about what we eat, we have to be careful about fake cigarettes, liquor, eggs, milk, waste water trench oil [3], synthetic fat, bleached rice, bean sprouts soaked in contaminated water, turtles fed with contraceptive drugs, deep-fried flour sticks made with detergent powder; about where we go outside of our home, we need to be careful about sales people, con artists, and law enforcement officers (who can fine you for anything); about going to the hospital, we are concerned about fake drugs, unlicensed doctors, or being “over-treated” (The Hong Kong Sun newspaper recently disclosed that China consumed 10.4 billion bottles of IV fluid last year, an average of 8 bottles per person.) Moreover, we need to deal with fake tickets, fake licenses, fake lotteries, bank fraud, fake tigers [4], and fake news.

“All of sudden, the ‘conspiracy theory’ is all over China’s Internet. Sometimes, the more clarifications the government puts out, the more questions Internet users have. The Guardian made the following comments: ‘The display of mistrust over such incidents (referring to the death of village head and activist Qian Yunhui in the Yueqing’s case) shows the scale of the credibility challenge the authorities face. Conspiracy theories flourish online in all countries, but they have a particularly strong appeal in China.’ Professor Huang Yasheng at MIT also said, ‘No matter what caused the death of Mr. Qian, considering the focus of the media coverage, wouldn’t this display a type of crisis? If you were a government official, wouldn’t you feel worried and concerned?’

“Last year, an 11-year-old elementary student in Beijing conducted a simple food safety test with the assistance of his teacher. He found that, out of 14 types of fresh mushrooms he selected randomly, 13 were bleached. At the same time, the Beijing Food Safety office carried out an “official” investigation and claimed that 97 percent of the mushrooms sold in Beijing’s market tested negative for bleach and were therefore safe to eat. On the one hand an elementary student does a random investigation; on the other hand, the government’s official publishes an official statement. Who would you trust? In a survey of 1100 people, most trusted the results of the elementary student–only 8 said they trusted the government’s report.

“Trust in children is not limited to the general public. Certain government agencies, publicly or semi-publicly, have shown their distrust of adults. The Liangzhou District in Wuwei City, Gansu Province, assigned 18 Communist Party Young Pioneers (all students under age 14) to monitor a written test conducted in their public security and judiciary department in July 2009. By the end of the test, 25 participants had been caught cheating. The public security and judiciary department is charged with the responsibility of safeguarding social justice. How ironic that it would employ under-aged children to monitor its own internal test.

“Social conflict from housing demolition directly reduces the public’s trust in the government. … All of these instances reflect the conflict between officials and civilians. The reasons are deeply rooted. The current rash of incidents in the countryside is mostly related to land confiscation, forced-demolition, and forced-relocation. [5] Farmers try to protect their rights, which has caused conflicts with local governments. The local governments take measures against the farmers, saying they are a threat to stability and try to resolve it in order to maintain order. Our inability to solve these conflicts suggests that our thinking about maintaining stability is quite limited.

“Public trust in the regional governments has declined in the past two years. … In summary, the mass incidents involve protecting farmers’ rights during land confiscation and relocation. They also reflect what governments think ‘stability’ is when there is a conflict between our mentality of maintaining stability and farmers’ protection of their rights. Concerns about the farmers can’t be considered an instability factor and should be handled properly. We need to adjust our mentality about maintaining stability. Public trust basically involves these two fundamental issues. The issue of farmers’ rights not only covers land confiscation but also involves rights to cemetery plots, mineral exploration rights, and local farmers’ rights, and environmental issues.”

2.  The Salt Rush in China

[Editor’s Note: A recent rush to buy up salt in China, after Japan’s nuclear leak at the Fukushima plant, is a further example of what little trust and confidence the public has in the government. On March 16, 2011, people in the coastal cities on the Mainland rushed to buy iodized salt. On March 18, the salt rush spread throughout China. Many stores ran out of salt, and people bought soy sauce and other salt replacements instead.]

“According to a Shanghai resident, Cai Wenjun, the salt rush was caused, to a large extent, by TV news. She said, ‘Some people say that due to the radioactive impact of the Japan earthquake, salt from a contaminated ocean will not be edible. Then the TV news tried to quash the rumor and said it would not impact the Mainland. However, the people on the Mainland have lost confidence in the government. Every time the government makes some high profile statement, it means the truth is exactly the opposite. Starting on March 16th, all salt in stores (in Shanghai) had completely sold out, and the next day even all of the soy sauce was gone. I think the government orchestrated all of this. For example, milk products contain melamine, port has traces of clenbuterol, glutinous rice wine includes preservatives, and Sudan Red was found in salted duck eggs. Didn’t the government deny all of it?  Yet these violations are real and are continuing today.’

“Postings online said that, while the salt rush did show some people blindly following along, in fact what it highlights is the total absence of any social credibility or sense of security. In their personal experiences, the people who participated in the salt rush felt there was no one—no person or government department—that they could trust. They felt safe only when they could physically possess the resource in question, in this case, salt. One can laugh at their ignorance, but it is a clear demonstration of a deep social crisis.

“Internet writer Li Li pointed out, ‘Chinese authorities unleashed some so-called experts to quash the rumor that edible salt is not from the sea but from salt mines. From my personal experience, this is untrue. Even if sea salt is not contaminated at this time, the Communist Party consistently went all out after previous major safety accidents to cover up the truth. That has led to people’s complete loss of trust and confidence in the government. So if sea salt were contaminated due to nuclear radiation, the authorities would certainly cover it up and not notify the people. It does not mean our people are stupid, but, rather, our people are rational. Many postings online also concurred that this brief incident exposes the extent to which the Communist Party’s credibility has become bankrupt.’ The salt rush, in fact, is a public referendum, a no-confidence vote against the Communist Party.” [6]

“Another fact that one cannot ignore is that, as a result of long-term suppression, the entire country has plunged into utter confusion and distrust. We truly feel the pendulum twist and swing between truth and lies. Take the example of earthquake predictions. After an earthquake, officials often say that earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted. [7] When there really are indications of earthquakes, the authorities, using experts, assert that earthquakes will not occur. [8] So many incidents like this have happened. Step by step, people have lost their trust and confidence in the government and its experts; now, none feel safe and secure.

“For several years now, minor events have resulted in panic. It reflects deep social problems in China. ‘The garlic rush’ [9] and ‘the iodized salt rush’ are not terrible.  What is really alarming is the fear and mistrust that these incidents have, again and again, brought out. When rumors start to spread, in addition to actively clearing the rumors, the authorities should look at themselves and search for the underlying cause. Re-building the social mechanism to restore public trust and credibility is the key to the ultimate cure.” [10]

[1] International Herald Leader, “Please Try to Let Me Trust You,” January 17, 2011.
[2] Editor’s Note: Mr. Qian Yunhui was a village manager in Yueqing City, Zhejiang Province. He died on December 25, 1010, after a construction truck rolled over him. Several times before his death, he had reported how the local government had illegally taken villagers’ land for construction projects. Though the police and government immediately stated that his death was an accident, some claimed that witnesses had reported seeing unidentified people push or throw Qian under a truck. Public opinion on the web overwhelmingly suspected that the government had deliberately arranged to have him killed. The recently disappeared Ai Weiwei also looked into his case.
[3] Editor’s Note: Many Chinese restaurants dump their used oil into waste water trenches. Some people collect the oil from the trenches and reuse it when they cook food to sell.
[4] Editor’s Note: On October 12, 2007, Zhou Zhenglong, a peasant in Shaanxi Province, reported that he had seen a South China Tiger, a critically endangered species, in a forest. Zhou also presented a picture of the tiger that he claimed he took in the forest. Since then, many people, including government researchers have pointed out that the picture was a fake. However, the local government kept reassuring the public that the picture was real (so that they could attract tourists). Eight months later, the Shaanxi Province government declared the picture was a fake and ended the charade.
[5] Editor’s Note: In many land confiscation and forced-demolition cases in China, the local government offers a significantly below market price for residents’ houses. The local government then re-sells the land at a much higher price in order to profit from taking over the land. The residents suffer a great loss but they cannot really argue with the government. They face forced-demolition if they refuse to move out.
[6] Epoch Times, “The Earthquake Hasn’t Settled Yet, But People Are Already in Chaos in Buying up Salt: All Stirred up by CCTV,” March 19, 2011.
[7] Editor’s Note: Referring to how the Chinese government did not warn the public about the Wenchuan Earthquake, but afterwards only claimed that the earthquake could not have been accurately predicted.
[8] Editor’s Note: This refers to the fact that official earthquake experts claimed that there would be no earthquake at all in Qinghai Province, even though earthquake rumors had been spreading. On April 14, 2010, less than a month (after the rumors started), Yushu County, Qinghai Province had a 7.1 level earthquake.
[9] Editor’s Note: When SARS was spreading in China, a rumor circulated that garlic could prevent SARS, which caused a “garlic rush” in China.
[10] Sichuan Online, “The Trust Crisis behind the Salt Shortage,” March 18, 2011.