Note: This post is a translation of an article written by Deng Wangjing 邓王景 and published on China Youth Online 中青在线 on July 31, 2008. It is a response to an essay “public opinion is not always correct” written by Chen Jibing 陈季冰 on the same site two days earlier. In turn, Chen’s essay, which is already translated by ESWN, seems to be a response to some even earlier articles. Some examples are:
- 民意被过滤比民意非理性更可怕 The filtering of public opinion is scarier than irrational public opinions
- 民意考核官员，怎么考 Use public opinion to evaluate job performances of government officials, how?
- 网络民调不能代替现实征询民意 Internet based public opinion survey is no substitute for in person inquires
Hopefully, such translations would give readers a stronger sense of (often quite lively and sometimes idealistic) discussions of politics, democracy, etc. in the Chinese media.
The value of public opinion does not depend on its correctness per se
Mr. Chen Jibing wrote an essay “public opinion is not always correct” on July 29, which criticized two opposite attitudes regarding public opinions: completely dismissive and unconditional supportive. I have noticed that readers’ responses were overwhelmingly negative on websites that distributed this article. After going through nearly one hundred comments left at those sites, my conjecture is that many of the readers were misled by the title and started criticisms without bothering to read through the entire writing.
Personally, I have conflicted reactions to the views expressed in “public opinion is not always correct”. On the one hand, I understand the worries expressed by the author on the selective dismissal or manipulation of public opinions by the class with vested interest 既得利益者 to further expand its interest. In this regard, I agree and support such a concern. On the other hand, I believe that “true” public opinions, while at times not always correct, are nevertheless a balancing and corrective force for democracy in the long term.
[note: 既得利益者 is a commonly used term in Chinese political discourses. It is literally translated as ones with vested interest. In essence, it refers to the ones benefiting the most from the current political or economical structures. This term is not unlike the “special interest group” often seen in the U.S. political language but is somewhat more formal. It should not be mixed up with the “ruling class.”]
Now, what is the “true public opinion”? From a purely theoretic point of view, the “true public opinion” must be a precisely combined position properly representing all interested parties. And it is preconditioned on each interested individual having a vote, and only one vote. The views from the online population or some other small circles are but a fraction of the “true public opinion” in most cases.
Ideally, there are two prerequisite conditions that need to be met before the perfect “true public opinion” can be obtained. First, all interested parties need to be well aware of what they are voting for. For example, in some western countries’ presidential election campaigns, the candidates necessarily would give speeches and debate with opponents to facilitate voters to know them (e.g., governing policies, personalities, etc.) better. Second, there must be sufficiently effective processes and mechanisms in place to help collect precise voting results from all interested parties with voting rights. Don’t laugh at this seemingly obvious second condition. It is not unheard of, in the U.S. presidential elections, that very large number of voters had their votes disqualified or worse yet, counted towards candidates other than their choices, because they don’t know how to vote properly.
The fact that I went through great length to discuss what is “true public opinion” and how to realize it is meant to point out the difficulty of obtaining it in reality. This is because of the impossibility of establishing completely transparent and symmetric information availability as well as the inevitable presence of voters who should know better but don’t despite the best efforts for their learning and improvements.
Now that we are through many of the issues as described above, the subsequent discussions should be easier. I believe, the difficulty in obtaining “true public opinion” is the reason for the “perceived public opinion” not to be always correct. This is also why the class with vested interest could choose to selectively make use of public opinion. It could either take advantage of some kind of black box operations to keep the truth from the voting public, or manipulate the scope of the data collection (e.g., focus only on Internet based opinion surveys) to advance its own interest.
Nevertheless, it is highly important to note: at this moment, with the legal structure and practice [in China] still insufficient (e.g., no law to follow where it is needed, violating laws already on the book, ineffective enforcement, etc.), the public lacks a better method other than expressing collective opinions to counter the government and the class of vested interest. So there is a quandary. On the one hand, emphasizing on “public opinion” could lead to stalled/reversed reform processes or further gains for the class with vested interest. On the other hand, dismissal of “public opinion” also discards a good way to keep the administrative structure and the class with vested interest in check.
How do we resolve this quandary? It is necessary to go back to the discussion of the “true public opinion”.
It is true that it is both unreasonable and silly for a patient to tell the doctor how to prescribe medicines. [Note: please see the previous article from Chen for some context] But patients nevertheless have the right to be properly informed. They have the right to be given all the viable options and the associated pros and cons. They should be able to pick a preferred treatment method from the list. That is: people should be given sufficient access to information before the issue of how they can make choices is brought on the table. This is the first step for the “true public opinion” to demonstrate its value. I must point out that the Chinese government, academics and media are all under-performing in supporting the public’s right to be informed.
The second step for “true public opinion” to be of value is the establishment of a scientific and effective method to survey and aggregate public opinions. It is too often the case that Internet based surveys are used as public opinions. Such statistics are usually unable to reflect true breakdowns of public opinions (except perhaps those only concerning the Internet). Due to this concern, the survey agencies in many other countries go through a multitude of channels (e.g., phone calls, question sheets, Internet, etc.) to reach randomly picked subjects for data collection with a goal of approaching the elusive “true public opinion”.
It is true that the expressed public opinion still could be wrong (particularly if it is reviewed when sufficient time has past) even if the public is given the opportunity to be informed. What could be done? Well, nothing. The public should suffer the consequence of their own choice [if it is a wrong one]. But such penalty is not and should not be without limit either. George Bush’s successful reelection effort in 2004 is the result of voters’ emphasis of security over everything else. Bush was able to exploit this sentiment better than his opponent. Based on more recent opinion surveys, a strong majority of U.S. voters can’t wait to get rid of Bush. They have no other option but to wait for January 2009. The consequence of Bush’s reelection is something for the U.S. voters to bear [because of their expressed opinions]. However, we should also note that a presidential term is four years long. This limit in term duration give the “true public opinion” a way to correct itself to achieve balance in practicing democracy.
Public opinions can facilitate a balanced democracy if efforts are made to give the public the right to know and vote in combination with a system in which the public can also correct their errors in doing so. Whatever issues there may still be, let time take care of them.