One of the great unknowns of the modern world is Chinese public opinion. In the quite recent past, government officials and various interested parties abroad could airily declare that all Chinese believed in specific things, and it would be hard to challenge them. With the explosion of social media, however, making such sweeping claims has become more difficult. As the internet has shown, Chinese society is as prone to fractiousness and division between noisy extremes as any other.
As a way of trying to get some traction on what, precisely, public opinion in modern China is, Gerard Lemos devised a "Wish Tree". He obtained approval from the Ministry of Civil Affairs - no easy feat - to erect a poster on which people were able to pin paper leaves inscribed with a few words on their hopes, fears and challenges. One interesting piece of information he got from this exercise was the variation among officials in different parts of the country in their willingness to let him take the data away for analysis. This indicates that, as he states, in many cases officials are simply trying to impose a harmonious veneer on people's views for fear of hearing the unvarnished feedback.
Fortuitously, one of the locations for this experiment was the southwestern city-province of Chongqing. This place has been in the news of late because of the fall from grace of its former Communist Party leader, Bo Xilai. For that reason, some of Lemos' material is already out of date. Bo may make a comeback, but the odds are very much against it. In any case, the reforms he promoted in the city have left a divisive legacy. What does remain true, as Lemos shows, is that Chongqing is very much a place misperceived. Despite presenting itself as a "Hong Kong of the southwest", full of high-rise buildings and a glamorous night-time panorama, it is an area of entrenched poverty, corruption and vast environmental problems. These problems are reflected in some of the views Lemos elicited from the people who wrote on his Wish Tree.
Capturing public opinion is one thing. The government is endlessly nervous about how people participate in decision-making, despite what is said by elite Communist Party leaders, including Hu Jintao, the head of the national party and president of China. Although he spoke of the need to create a balanced, harmonious society when he came to office in 2002-03, the bottom line is that the current structure of Chinese society and its political configuration is simply not up to creating the sort of broad, cross-class support that will be needed as this vast and complex country gears up to face some of its economic, environmental and political challenges.
As Lemos explains in his final chapters, where he leaves analysis of the public feedback he gathered to look at the broader context, in the end, post-1978 Chinese society (after the Dengist reforms were started) has become a plutocracy. Its rulers belong to a business-financial elite, largely clustered around state-owned enterprises where there is a happy symbiosis between party leaders and their offspring, many of whom make good money in key sectors (telecoms, energy and even the internet). Modern China runs like a vast business; in it, on the whole, one has to follow the money to work out who has power over which areas. And just like companies in the West, the small shareholders in this vast enterprise are beginning to get very irritated by just how little say they have over their well-paid, well-looked-after fat-cat bosses. No wonder the leaders are worried.
The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future
By Gerard Lemos. Yale University Press, 352pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780300169249. Published 22 June 2012