Sex and China's credibility gap

By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - "The majority of Chinese people believe that prostitutes are more trustworthy than Communist Party and government officials."

If this were a viewpoint made by a report or commentary in overseas media, it would definitely have been furiously refuted by Beijing as "venomous slander" of the Chinese government with some "ulterior motives".

But this is not a sensational bluff by some tabloid newspaper. It is the result of a recent survey on the respective credibility of various social groups by the Research Center of the Xiaokang monthly, a sister publication of the bi-monthly Qi Shi (Seeking Truth) - the mouthpiece of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As such it must be taken seriously.

The nationwide online survey was conducted in June-July this year with the help of Sina.com and some other research institutions. The number of respondents totaled 3,376. Xiaokang started this annual survey in 2006. This year's results show that, of the 49 social groups, the five most trustworthy are (in descending): farmers, religious workers, sex workers, soldiers and students.

Farmers and soldiers have always been among the five most trustworthy groups in the Xiaokang polls. "This is nothing strange. Chinese peasants are less sophisticated and behave more honestly than urban residents. Hence farmers are often bullied or cheated. Soldiers have impressed the public with their performance in disaster relief works, particularly with the Sichuan earthquake last year," said a sociology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

But this is the first time religious practitioners and prostitutes have been included among the most trustworthy social groups. Religious workers aside, sex workers being listed among the most trustworthy is quite shocking. In Chinese culture, a prostitute is viewed as being "shameless" and without affections.

This result has taken many aback. The official China Daily said in an editorial: "At a time when shamelessness is pervasive, we are often at loss as to who can be trusted ... A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing. The sex business is illegal and thus underground in this country. The sex workers' unexpected prominence on this list of honor ... is indeed unusual."

However, as long as "doing business" is concerned, prostitutes may indeed be more trustworthy than those in other trades, said a Shenzhen small businessman surnamed Zhou. "You see rampant production of faked goods, frauds and cheats in commercial activities. But when you strike a deal with a prostitute, she'll never breach the 'contract'."

According to the poll, the five least credible groups are (also in descending) real estate developers, secretaries, brokers, performance stars and directors. People don't trust developers because they reap staggering profits while keep saying the "housing price is reasonable". Secretaries, mostly young females, are often mistresses of their bosses. Performance stars and directors are laden with sex scandals.

While the Xiaokang report does not publicize the ratings of other groups in between, judging by the wording government officials are probably just a little more trusted than the last five groups.

The survey report says public confidence in the government dropped considerably in 2009. Nearly half of the respondents said that individuals, business firms and the government are all losing their credibility. But comparatively, they are more worried about the drain of the government's credibility.

As an example, more than 91% of respondents said they no longer believe government statistics on social and economic development, saying such data is "all or mostly fabricated". By comparison, in the 2007 survey, only 79% of the respondents said they don't trust government statistics. The sharp decline manifests a "significant drain" of government credibility, Xiaokang said.

As if to serve as evidence to this, the National Bureau of Statistics said on July 27 that the actual per capita income of urban Chinese increased 11.2% in the first half of this year, far outgrowing the 7.1% gross domestic product growth, in spite of the economic downturn. The release of such "too-good-to-be-true" income figures greatly upset the general public as few actually made more money during that period. (China produces a wages miracle, Asia times Online, August 5, 2009).

"Multiple factors may be responsible for this. The Xiaokang Magazine Research Center named four - protectionism, unstable policies, dumb decisions and lack of transparency. All of which has to do with the low-level bureaucracy's lack of respect for public concerns," China Daily says.

In fact, government or officials' credibility has always remained low in past Xiaokang surveys. This is no surprise at all, given rampant corruption, abuse of power by officials and the lack of transparency in government operations.

"Corrupt officials, before exposed, always pose as persons of high morality, giving sermons on how to build a clean government and to serve the people. But their true colors are shown after being caught. With more and more officials found corrupt and even some members of the politburo - the country's power core -could become corrupt. How can you hope people will trust them in general? That 'mass incidents' now frequently happen across the country is a manifestation of people's great distrust of officials," said the CASS sociologist.

The government's release of false or misleading information has also augmented public distrust. Not to mention the deliberately deceptive messages released by the government to cover up major incidents.

A recent and seemingly harmful episode is illustrates this. August 8 marked the first anniversary of the opening of Beijing Summer Olympic Games. In the run-up to that day, major newspapers in Beijing reported that, as part of a celebration, the municipal government of the Chinese capital decided to open major Olympic venues including the famous "Bird's Nest" and "Water Cube" to visitors free of charge for three days from August 8.

Before dawn people began to queue at entrances to these sites. But security guards barred them from entering. Skirmishes occurred. Would-be visitors waved newspapers carrying the report about free visits, but the guards said they had not received any notice. Reporters then checked with the information office of the Beijing municipal government and were told that the notice was released "mistakenly". On hearing this, some people who had been waiting for hours angrily shouted before TV cameras, "Who can trust this government? Who can trust these newspapers?"

Officials being less trustworthy than sex workers must not be taken just as some bitter joke or a piece of black humor. The message in fact rings a red alarm for the CCP.

"The CCP seized power 60 years ago largely because it won popular support. After 60 years of ruling the country, now people are expressing their dissatisfaction or even anger in various ways [such as in opinion polls or taking to the streets] over its governance. The party must address this problem seriously and quickly," said the sociologist.

In October, the CCP will mark the 60th anniversary of its rule of China. It may not be coincidental that Xiokang publicized its survey right before National Day. It serves as a reminder to the party that whether it can continue its rule as it wishes entirely depends on whether it could win back popular support again.

In the survey, 95% of the respondents said: "Only a government that is sincere and responsible in serving people can ensure the country's stability and development." Echoing this, the China Daily editorial said: "Even for stability's sake, efforts must be made to restore the governments' credit record. The first step, however, is to put an end to public servants being alienated from public interest."