THE strength of public opinion in China is well recognized despite the apparent dearth of means for its registration or mobilization. For example, the Kuomintang triumphed in 1926-28 primarily because it had gained general public support; and the Nineteenth Route Army fought at Shanghai against the desires of China's constituted leaders and in response to popular pressure. Again, the possibilities of Sino-Japanese conciliation remain practically unexplored because Chinese statesmen feel bound by the popular insistence that there shall not be the slightest tendency toward compromise.

In general, the Chinese philosophy of government is based on the reason of the governed, rather than on law. The final check on the autocratic power of the ruler, whether of the county, the province or the nation, is that he must conform to the traditions and ethics established for the people as a whole. When dynasties collapsed, they were said to have exhausted the mandate of heaven; in most cases they really had forfeited public confidence.

The laws which govern this force are imperfectly understood alike in China and America. To borrow an analogy from physics, we know its statics, but have only limited means for ascertaining its dynamics. The power of a disciplined and determined minority to impress its will on an apathetic or demoralized majority exists throughout the world, regardless of governmental forms. Intensity of feeling is more powerful than mere volume. That is why any method of counting heads furnishes an imperfect and incomplete indication of the real popular will. And those men who win renown as leaders of public opinion have never been able to rationalize or formulate their methods. In the last analysis they rely on instinct, intuition and tact to determine what the public wants and how badly it wants it.

But even admitting this limitation we still are able to make some sort of qualitative comparison of Chinese and American public opinion. It so happens that the ethos of each people provides a common starting point. In both countries popular judgments are almost invariably based on a criterion of morality. To attain any widespread support, an issue must possess a definite ethical significance, some appeal above that of expediency. In China, as in America, public opinion mobilizes effectively and powerfully only in matters that can be labeled as "right" or "wrong."

But while the two peoples have this in common, their courses soon diverge, for the reason that the two underlying ethical systems are so dissimilar in content and outlook. The Chinese concept of morals tends to be set and rigid; the American is more elastic. When the price of grain drops, the American farmer has little difficulty in persuading himself that sinister and immoral forces have caused his misfortune and that governmental measures for redress are in order. The Chinese husbandman feels that a low cash return on his rice crop is part of his destiny, confirmed by centuries of experience, and is to be borne in silent stoicism. On the other hand, crop failures resulting from natural calamities are accepted by American farmers as acts of God, to be accepted quietly and mitigated by governmental aid. The Chinese traditionally associate flood, drought and famine with the shortcomings of their rulers (who must have sinned against Heaven by maladministration), and hence these natural afflictions normally give rise to popular unrest and turmoil.

Again, Chinese officials can afford to disregard petitions for relief from taxes, even when these requests emanate from a broad and rightly aggrieved section of the community. Taxers and taxed alike feel that fiscal oppression to the verge of destruction is sanctioned by centuries of usage, and in consequence widespread indignation and suffering only rarely result in any mobilization of public opinion on an ethical basis. Yet these same Chinese authorities will hesitate long before decreeing the execution of a single obscure and seditious student. The man they may desire to remove has a definitely safeguarded niche in the social system. He is a scholar before he is a traitor. For him to be secure is accepted as having a permanent moral importance, and violence done to him, regardless of his deserts, can be counted upon inevitably to arouse mass resentment and to crystallize public opinion against his judges.

This rigidity of the moral frame within which Chinese public opinion usually must be accommodated has important consequences. The first is that the popular reaction to usual happenings can be predicted with fair accuracy, so that responsible politicians can generally manage to steer their course in a way to avoid arousing mass opinion. Here we find the roots of the common belief that Chinese popular thought is rudimentary or ineffective. It would be more accurate to say that the tendency toward rigidity in group thinking is so pronounced that by a show of dexterity leaders can avoid awakening adverse public opinion. In this light many of the complex manœuvres of Chinese politics become understandable. The politicians are avoiding the fixed obstacles of a static popular thought.

This rigidity and traditionalism make the mobilization of opinion of large sections of the people regarding new issues and problems slow and difficult. But when opinion is aroused, the action, because of its very rarity, assumes the proportions of a major psychological event. Perhaps the most important instance of it in recent years has been the indoctrination of popular nationalism by Sun Yat-sen and his disciples. As time gives perspective to the work of that great revolutionary, it appears probable that his most lasting accomplishment will be recognized to have been the building-up of a broad nationalistic caste of thought among the Chinese. Yet even here, for the complete accomplishment of his aims, he was forced to blur pure nationalism into traditionalistic anti-foreignism.

Finally, the fact must be stated that the rigidity of public opinion in China can make for the most explosive sort of mass action. The cultural and psychological homogeneity of the race is so perfect that what appeals to the individual or to the section can evoke a similar reaction throughout the whole people. Local antagonisms and rivalries often exist, local interests can and do differ, but speaking broadly there are no local feelings in China. An effective slogan in Peiping will produce equal results in Canton. Commercial advertising in China does not need to make sectional appeals. Indeed, Chinese public opinion may be likened to a vast water table, overlaid by hardened strata of convention and illiteracy. It may be tapped, though with difficulty, by wells driven at any point, and the process of draining by these outlets affects the whole spacious area of the country. Nor is it forcing the analogy too far to call attention to the heavy and impervious nature of the retaining strata, the very pressure of which tends to make the release of public opinion assume the character of an explosion. The riots, anarchy and revolts, both local and national, which fill the long record of Chinese history, may be not inaccurately described as detonations of popular feeling which had been compressed beyond the critical point of endurance.

According to Chinese philosophy and tradition, leadership in popular action and in popular thought was vested in the constituted official. He was the representative as well as the ruler of the people. Furthermore, the official was merged with the scholar. Entry into public life lay through the gates of the state examination halls, and every educated man regarded himself as actually or potentially a public servant. The long and arduous study required for success in the civil service examinations drew men into official careers at relatively mature ages. The net result was the establishment of a great body of the learned, essentially democratic in origin, to whom the mass of the people looked for wisdom and guidance and to whom were accorded deference and honor. While the way to public office and public esteem was not entirely barred to men in other walks of life, in effect the scholars set up amongst themselves a self-perpetuating monopoly of leadership.

The Chinese Revolution has changed this state of affairs subtly and profoundly. It has instituted a cleavage between the scholars and the rulers, and though this cleavage is not clean-cut it nevertheless has operated to limit the influence of both classes without substituting any other force for molding public opinion. True, there still are many scholars in public life, and the National Government is committed to the establishment and maintenance of an influential civil service. But in actual fact many of the men who have risen to power out of the turmoil of revolution are characterized by a lack of cultural background and scholastic tradition. Most of them are soldiers, raised to prominence on the bayonets of their troops; but whether military men or civilians, they represent a break with China's academic heritage.

Because of this dislocation, the ruler has tended to forfeit the confidence of the ruled and to lose much of his power to sway public opinion. The Chinese in authority are fully aware of this. Thus it is that we behold hard-fisted generals ostentatiously writing poetry, studying painting and conducting elaborate rites at the tombs of their ancestors: oriental counterparts of the western rabble-rouser who makes a point of addressing his constituents without a necktie. Yet despite these efforts, the new Chinese officialdom has not been able to bridge the gap that has opened between itself and the republic of letters. There attaches to it the resentment reserved for the parvenu. It possesses physical power, but few instinctive followers. Its ability to mold public opinion is seriously less than used to be that of the officialdom which preceded it.

A similar deterioration has set in with regard to the scholar's ability to direct and fashion the trends of popular thought. Where the ruler has lost in public esteem, the learned man has lost in opportunity. His influence has diminished precisely because he no longer holds, through education as such, either authority or the potentiality of authority. Learning is still in high repute in China, where any sheet of paper that bears ink has an honorable status; but the learned are falling from their lofty estate. In consequence, the tendency is for study to become a path to scholasticism rather than a way to the realization of political ambitions. The leader is no longer inevitably an educated man; nor, on the other hand, is the scholar inevitably a leader of public opinion.

On first sight the foregoing observation would appear to merit an important exception. If the scholar has lost or is losing his control over Chinese public opinion, what is to be said of the university student? He still enjoys the general Chinese regard for learning, and he is certainly articulate and active in the leading of popular causes. Much ill has been spoken of the Chinese students. It has been readily believed in America because student participation in political life is alien to the American academic tradition, whereas in many other countries it is regarded as usual and normal. Public activity by the students of China usually can be described as patriotic, courageous and energetic. The Chinese respect it as such. They are willing to overlook its obvious defects: its frequent shortsightedness, the subornation which it entails, its occasional venality, its turbulence, even its flavor of childishness -- it is remarkable, for instance, how often political demonstrations by students coincide with the examination seasons! The student's standing as a scholar minimizes even his immaturity. None the less, the Chinese man in the street senses also that the student is frequently an instrument of minds stronger and more experienced than his own, and that he is a creature of enthusiasms, unsuited for long constructive effort. In consequence the students enjoy popular respect because they are students; but their ability to marshal and direct public opinion is much less than is usually ascribed to them.

The business man, that element of the population which with us has the most to say in the development of public opinion, has little opportunity to do so in China. His voice is not expected to be raised, and if he speaks he is not accorded much of a hearing. This statement is not to be interpreted as denying the business man's influence in matters of government and national policy. He has economic power, of course, and this is frequently heeded by the government and is sometimes decisive. But to be a molder of popular thought he must also be a scholar or else placed in a position of administrative authority. Otherwise he is almost a cipher.

At this point we may pause to observe that the three elements mentioned -- officials, scholars and business men -- each possesses characteristic opinions. It is too much to call these elements social classes, for they change constantly, overlap and merge; a single individual may be simultaneously an official, a scholar and a merchant. But on public questions each group tends to develop a characteristic viewpoint which it is anxious to have adopted by Chinese mass opinion and which it would like to have reported abroad as being representative of all Chinese thought. It is these group opinions which are most readily accessible to the superficial investigator. They give rise to many of the conflicting reports concerning the ideas and aims of modern China. Their importance is not to be gainsaid; in numerous instances the thought of Chinese statesmen exercises a greater influence on the march of events than does the thought of the Chinese people as a whole. But to consider such group thought as expressive of public opinion is always dangerous, and deductions based on any such process should always be subjected to critical examination.

The Chinese Revolution, then, has seen the crumbling of the system which used to give China its popular leaders, nor has that system been replaced. This is not to say that leaders have not been forthcoming. A country which, in one decade, has produced a Sun Yat-sen, a Wang Ching-wei, a Feng Yu-hsiang and a Chiang Kai-shek can challenge comparison on this score. But these men are not the products of a system or of an environment. They have challenged and risen superior to both.

China possesses the same means as does America for building up public opinion: the radio, the moving-picture, the stage, the newspaper, the recorded word in books, pamphlets and placards, the spoken word in formal discourse and in gossip. But the effectiveness of the various agencies is very different. With us the mechanics of mobilizing popular thought centers around the newspapers. They are our most comprehensive source of information in themselves. But that is not all; they hold sway over and confer authority upon all other forms of communication. If we hear a speech, either from the platform or through the air, we turn to the news reports to study it, to the editorial columns for the interpretation of it. We select the plays and motion pictures which we attend from the printed advertisements and above all from the printed criticisms. We tend to be skeptical of rumors until they achieve publication.

In China, on the other hand, the rôle of the newspaper is much more modest. The Chinese journals are flimsy and sketchy. Their columns bear a deserved reputation for unreliability and for often being mendacious. Most important of all, they reach a limited public. The illiterates of China have been estimated at nine-tenths of the population, and, in addition, great masses of the people cannot think of affording even the absurdly small sums which newspapers cost. Thus the Chinese newspaper reaches only the educated few and assists in forming group opinions among scholars, rulers or business men. It is very far from presiding over every stage of the development of popular thought as is the case in America.

Much the same is true of other forms of the printed word: books, pamphlets and handbills. A limited exception should be noted in the case of placards and posted slogans, which are extensively used throughout China. They are composed of only a few words, and their sense is soon learned. Their force when repeated over and over again is considerable. "Down with Imperialism!" and "Swear to Die for the Country's Salvation!" are implanted as firmly among the Chinese people as "It Floats" and "Ask the Man Who Owns One" are among us. But the limitations of this method of appeal are obvious.

The radio is little more than a toy in China. The drama is chiefly historical, and is unresponsive to current happenings. Motion pictures are usually imported from America or Japan; and when made locally they are based either on Hollywood standards or on the historical drama. All of these agencies are negligible in the development of modern Chinese public opinion.

By the process of elimination, therefore, the spoken word stands out as the preëminent means by which the mind of the people is informed and directed in China. The public speaker, be he orator or story-teller, can make a deep impression locally, but the radius of his influence is limited to his immediate audience and is seldom extended by the press. Gossip and rumors, however, spread like wildfire. Events become known or are distorted, are interpreted or misinterpreted, over vast areas with almost telegraphic speed. In matters about which the popular and racial tendency is to be passive, the results are negligible; but in matters about which the people are open to suggestion mass emotion may develop to the point where it verges on hysteria. In China, then, the spoken word is king; but its effectiveness is conditioned by the set standards of those who listen. We have followed a circle and are back to the fundamental homogeneity of Chinese group thought and its rigid frame of traditionalism.

To sum up, Chinese public opinion is badly informed, inadequately led, imperfectly organized. It often remains unexpressed. Yet it exists as a dynamic force of tremendous potentialities and the occasional expression of it is overwhelming. It must be taken into careful account by any observer, historian or statesman who wishes to have a real understanding of what has been done and what can be done in China.

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  • T. J. BETTS, General Staff, United States Army; formerly Assistant Military Attaché in China
  • More By T. J. Betts