Apparatchiks and academics alike struggle to take China’s pulse

Apparatchiks and academics alike struggle to take China’s pulse

Among those arrested after the nationwide pro-democracy protests of 1989 were students, playwrights, poets—and a pollster. Earlier that year Yang Guansan had sent the results of China’s first public-opinion surveys to Zhao Ziyang, then the Communist Party’s chief. To Mr Yang, they suggested that unrest was imminent. After Zhao was purged for opposing the use of troops to crush the demonstrations, investigators discovered Mr Yang’s submission. Found guilty of inciting the protests, the researcher was locked up for two years.

For decades the party had scorned opinion polls as bourgeois and unnecessary—it embodied the will of the Chinese people, so why ask them what they thought? But it has become more open to pulse-taking since Mr Yang’s ordeal, which was described in an article by Tang Wenfang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, published in 2018. Mr Yang says the party is “more paranoid” about public opinion than its democratic peers because it lacks elections or a free press for feedback. Now ministries and official media have their own polling units. Universities run state-funded social surveys.