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China's public opinion gap: Chinese youth are starting to mistrust Beijing

Economic success has kept China calm and public opinion high. But trust in government is eroding just as demands on Beijing for more political rights are likely to rise.

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Women use laptops at a Beijing cafe. Rising suspicion of government may be a function of increased access to sources of information on the Internet. One expert says that as one’s Internet use goes up, one’s belief that government needs no oversight goes down.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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One recent evening, a 20-something Chinese woman was watching the TV news here with her mother. A spokesman for the Health Ministry was denying allegations that contaminated milk powder had caused premature sexual development in baby Chinese girls, and reassuring viewers government tests found the powder safe.

"That's a relief," said the mother. Her daughter reacted differently. "What do you mean?" she asked. "If the government says it's safe, that's a good enough reason to think it probably isn't."

A series of recent Chinese and international studies show that the Chinese government is finding it increasingly difficult to inspire trust among the younger generation, born after the country launched its economic reform program 30 years ago. These are the people on whom China's future, and future Chinese governments, will depend.

At first glance, the Chinese government appears to enjoy very high public trust: A series of surveys by international scholars over the past decade suggest that at least 70 percent of ordinary citizens express confidence in the government and ruling Communist Party – a level that Western rulers can only dream of.

Scholars variously attribute this to historical Chinese respect for authority, or to the one-party state's expertise at mobilizing political support through propaganda, and to many Chinese feeling that the government has done a good job – especially at raising living standards.

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