Written by Lei GUANG, Margaret ROBERTS, Yiqing XU and Jiannan ZHAO; Data Analysis and visualization by Young YANG and Jiannan ZHAO

The Chinese leadership has cast the novel coronavirus pandemic as a win for centralized governance but do Chinese citizens agree? Despite initial anger at the government’s attempt to cover up the disease outbreak, new data suggests that the Chinese public’s approval of its government is growing.

Since the outbreak began in China in late 2019, to its peak in early 2020 and apparent control in March 2020, speculation has been rife about the pandemic’s potential impact on the legitimacy of the Chinese regime. Some have speculated that the government’s initial response to the virus would undermine its legitimacy, while others have maintained that the eventual control of its spread would bolster support and, instead, undermine the Chinese public’s view of democracy. Still others have predicted that, despite the enormity of the pandemic, very little would change.

What does the evidence show? Over the past two years, the China Data Lab has fielded a series of national online surveys of urban residents in China as part of a larger effort to study the opinions of ordinary Chinese people—on things ranging from the U.S.-China trade war to happiness and climate change. For each survey wave, we recruit around 1,000 respondents using a quota sampling strategy targeting pre-specified proportions of gender, education, and age groups.

Results from three of our most recent surveys—which asked respondents about their trust in the central and local governments in China, support of China’s political system, and opinions toward the United States—show remarkable growth in favorable opinions of the Chinese government, and declines in favorable opinion of the U.S.

The average levels of trust in both the central and local governments in China have steadily increased during the past year. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average level of trust in the central government—already high—increased from 8.23 in June 2019, to 8.65 in Feb 2020, and to 8.87 in May 2020. There was a similar upward trend for the average level of trust in municipal governments.

Trust in Central Government

Trust in Local Government

When we asked respondents whether they prefer living under China’s political system as compared to others, average scores (calculated on a 1 to 5 Likert scale) increased from 3.89 in June 2019, to 4.14 in February 2020, and to 4.28 in May 2020. The percentage of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed to this statement also increased—from 70 percent in June 2019, to 78 percent in February 2020, and to 83 percent in May 2020.

Our findings only reflect online, urban users and may be subject to social desirability bias—that is, they may be influenced by respondents’ preference for giving answers that the regime approves of. However, the upward trend in government trust is nonetheless meaningful because our samples are comparable (over time) and the respondents were asked the exact same questions.

What might be driving Chinese citizens’ rising trust in their central government? National crises may inspire citizens to “rally around the flag,” and China’s relative success in controling the virus’ spread inside China probably also contributed to citizen satisfaction. The sudden onset of the crisis also led to a huge mobilization of public resources at the municipal level, enhancing the degree of dependence by citizens on the local authorities. This may be another reason for the uptick in trust of local governments, even during the peak of the outbreak.

Support for the Political System

Digging into different demographics, we find that younger respondents and those with higher education—groups that originally had lower levels of trust in the government and political system—exhibit larger jumps in regime support. Coronavirus seems to have brought traditionally more critical groups to similar levels of trust in the government as those who have traditionally been more supportive.

What about Chinese views of the United States? Data from our surveys shows that, across all demographics, views toward the United States have become significantly more negative. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average favorability toward the U.S. dropped from 5.77 in June 2019, to 4.77 in May 2020. In comparison, sentiments toward South Korea remained roughly the same (5.88 in June 2019; 5.89 in May 2020).

The further decline in favorable views toward the United States is likely the result of a confluence of factors, including statements from President Trump blaming China for COVID-19 and the dismal performance of the United States in handling the virus. The Chinese media’s coverage of the United States durng this period may have enflamed feelings of antipathy and even disdain toward the United States, which in turn affect views of the Chinese public.

In the U.S., recent Pew studies have also shown increasingly negative attitudes among Americans toward China, suggesting that feelings across the Pacific are becoming increasingly cold. However, while Chinese seem to be increasing trust in their own government, ohter studies have suggested that trust in the U.S. government among Americans could weaken substantially as a result of the COVID-19.

The bottom line: Evidence from the China Data Lab shows that since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, support among the Chinese public for the Chinese government has risen, while the U.S. has fallen in favor. At a time of heightened tensions and strategic competition between the U.S. and China, these shifting public attitudes suggest that China brings more than just economic and military assets to great power competition—but also an approving public.

Feelings Toward the U.S.

Feelings Toward South Korea