China’s Ideological Spectrum and Why Those Behind It Are True Visionaries


Polling is a tricky business in China. For something that pollsters in a Western democracy do on a daily (or even hourly) basis, Chinese researchers and survey companies either cannot touch at all or need to get their questionnaires scrutinized by the statistical authority for approval. So you don’t just pick up the phone and start asking people questions like “on a scale from 1 to 5, how do you rate the President’s performance so far?” You can ask them about what toothpastes they use, but not on those questions. A few years ago, some group got into big trouble for doing “illegal surveys” in China. So you get the picture.

That’s why the dataset accumulated by the Chinese Political Compass project over the course of 8 years (2007-2014) becomes so unique. For those who don’t read Chinese, you may just go to the original Political Compass to get a general idea. Basically, it is an online test that locates a person’s ideological stance based on their reaction to 50 statements. A sample statement looks like this:

Indiscriminately imitating (systems of) western style freedom of speech will lead to social disorder in China.

A test taker chooses from “Strongly Disagree”, “Disagree”, “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” before s/he moves on to the next statement. After completing the whole survey, the test taker gets scores to indicate how liberal/conservative he or she is politically, economically and culturally. All 50 statements are tailor-made to capture the actual divides in the Chinese society that can be quite idiosyncratic. For instance, as the above sample statement shows, freedom of speech is still up for debate in China while in most Western democracies it is taken as a shared foundation of the society no matter whether you are liberal or conservative.

This brings us to the very unique situation where the Chinese labelling of “liberal” and “conservative” could be confusing for a Western audience. Part of the reason, as explained by Chinese scholar Qin Hui, is the fact that Western liberals and conservatives all operate above a certain bottom line that does not exist in China. With this bottom line as a basic constraint, “ideological options” are roughly defined by where the line of the state/individual boundary is drawn: those on the left advocate for more state intervention and responsibility (Welfare state), while those on the right stand for more individual liberty and less welfare. The constraint is a social contract that power matches responsibility. In such a society it would be very difficult for politicians to bargain for more state power (social control) and less responsibility (welfare) at the same time. That’s why you seldom see democracies with high tax and low welfare. Yet this is exactly the bottom line that is absent in a country like China, where you start to see ideas that could be unfathomable to a mind so accustomed to the basic social contract. A statist position that calls for an omnipresent state while simultaneously asking the people to make “sacrifices” on their welfare is deemed “leftist” in a Chinese context, but I’m sure Elizabeth Warren would find it horrendous. Much of the ideological split in China is actually along the lines that no longer divide Western societies (things like freedom of speech and constitutional democracy).  That’s why the Chinese left/right debates can be so perplexing. (Below is a table that summarizes the divides in the Chinese context).


From “China’s Ideological Spectrum

It is with those considerations that creators of the Chinese Political Compass came up with their original test back in 2007. It has been thence forth operating in a very low-profile way, with personal reference as its major way of spreading. I took the test back in 2008, when a friend of mine sent me the link on MSN messenger as if passing along banned books back in high school (disclosure: I’m a political 1, economic 0.5 and cultural 0.4). But apparently the test collected momentum even in such a discreet manner, with over one million people taking it in total. This approach of course does not generate a representative sample. The self-selected nature of the test takers fills the cohort with politically curious, male, college students. But this is probably as far as you can get in the current circumstances.

Early this year, the test website unfortunately caught the attention of the Great Firewall of China. People inside the country can no longer access the site unless they use a VPN to bypass that firewall. This deals a heavy blow to the site no just in the sense of lower traffic but, probably more damaging, of further strengthening the self-selection process of test takers (now only those who grasp how to handle a VPN can take it). After making the decision that future data will not be meaningful any more, the creator of the test made the raw data from previous years available for download.

As you can imagine, this dataset is a treasure island. Within less than ten days of its disclosue, a joint research paper by two Chinese students from Harvard and MIT emerged on the internet, which is titled “China’s Ideological Spectrum“. By analyzing the more than 170,000 answers from the test’s 2014 dataset, they come to a set of conclusions that shed light on a part of the Chinese national psyche that few have examined before. Probably the most important insight from this analysis is the finding that the ideological spectrum in China is really uni-dimensional (even though the survey is designed in three dimensions). In other words, those who are politically conservative are also likely to be economically and socially conservative, and the same applies to the liberals. In a sense, this shows that ideologically speaking, China is still not as diverse as advanced democracies where, for example, social and economic issues often constitute two separate dimensions. It will be difficult to find someone like Rand Paul in contemporary China, who is conservative on social issues but libertarian on the economics. The authors claim that this conclusion is likely to hold true even if they use a more representative sample. This I’ll leave to statistically savvier minds to judge.

Other findings from the paper are more expected. For example, liberalism in China is highly related with modernization, education and income. Those who are well educated and with a higher income are more likely to embrace free trade, government transparency and gay rights.

The very fact that the existence of an ideological spectrum in China (though uni-dimensional in nature) is being supported by empirical data is ground-breaking. It shows how far the country has moved away from a monolithic state of mind. And it is probably not going to be reversed. With diversity comes balance and equilibrium, as the left can be checked by the right, the fanatics checked by the moderate. That’s also partly why I started this blog: to show that there is diversity in the lively and noisy world of ideas in this country. And that, in itself, is empowering.

But the creators of Chinese Political Compass have done much more. As a bunch of college students back in 2007, they acted on an idea, held on to it and turned it into a great source of political self-awareness for a generation of Chinese and a treasure box of insights for the whole world. It is this kind of progressive volunteerism that is truly changing the spectrum of China. To quote one of the creators, who released a public statement on Apr 1 about his decision to offer the raw data for download:

We need to better understand our country and its people. This is not easy, and sometimes unpleasant. But this is our responsibility.

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