This paper examines the relationship between distrust in incumbent government leaders and demand for systemic changes in rural China. It finds that individuals who distrust government leaders’ commitment to the public interest have both stronger demand for leadership change and stronger preference for popular elections. It argues that distrust in government leaders may have enhanced the demand for leadership change, which in turn may have reinforced the preference for elections. It further argues that distrust in incumbent leaders has in effect induced a demand for systemic changes, as introducing popular election of government leaders would require a major constitutional amendment. The paper suggests that two distinctive mechanisms may be at work in determining whether distrust in current government authorities induces preference for systemic changes. Whether citizens can engineer leadership change through existing channels influences the generation of idealistic wishes for a better political system. Perceived availability of better and viable alternatives affects whether idealistic wishes become a practical preference.
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It is worth noting that preference for elections is not equivalent to support for democratization, not to mention demand for overall regime change. As important as it is, popular election of government leaders is only one of several major dimensions of a democratic system. Moreover, election without multiparty competition can hardly be considered a criterion for democracy. Even if government leaders at all levels are elected with one-person one-vote, China will at best become an “electoral authoritarian” country (e.g., Diamond 2002; Schedler 2006) rather than a democracy if such elections are limited to and run by a single ruling party and exclude all potential organized opposition. Recent survey studies of political support in urban China have used more direct measures to tap popular demand (or the lack of it) for regime change, e.g., to what extent an individual feels proud to live under the current political system and feels obliged to support the current political system, if an individual believes that the communist-led multi-party system should be changed, and whether an individual finds political stability more important than democratization (Chen 2004, p. 23; Tang 2005, pp. 70–76).
Villagers’ committees are not a level of government but “mass organizations of self-government.”
The answer “do not know” was treated as a valid response rather than a missing value because it was read out as an alternative answer during the interview and it indicates a level of perception of corruption which is stronger than answering “no” but weaker than answering “it is said so.”
It ought to be noted that many unobserved factors might have affected distrust in government leaders, demand for leadership change, and preference for elections. Failed attempts to defend one’s lawful rights and interests through non-electoral channels such as petitioning and administrative litigation, for example, may result in stronger distrust in government leaders, stronger demand for leadership change, as well as stronger preference for elections.
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This project was funded by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Government (Grant No. CUHK2440/06H). I thank my collaborators for administering the survey. For insightful comments and suggestions, I thank the editors, two anonymous reviewers, Pierre Landry, Xiaobo Lu, Jeremy Wallace, and especially Kevin O’Brien and Melanie Manion.
See Table 4.
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Li, L. Distrust in Government Leaders, Demand for Leadership Change, and Preference for Popular Elections in Rural China. Polit Behav 33, 291–311 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9111-3
- Political trust
- Distrust in government leaders
- Leadership change
- Systemic changes