A recent Harvard University poll found that the Chinese government enjoys near-universal support from its citizens, findings that Beijing has quickly exploited.
That poll, however, was conducted by a company led by a former Chinese government official, a fact that raises questions about its reliability—and one that the university did not disclose.
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The poll, conducted by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, found that 93 percent of Chinese citizens approve of the country's Communist regime. Horizon Research is a Chinese polling company with extensive business and institutional ties to the Chinese government.
The university, which has received at least $76 million from Chinese entities since 2014, downplayed the relationship. A university spokesman, Daniel Harsha, told the Washington Free Beacon that Horizon is a "reputable domestic Chinese polling firm." Withholding the name of the firm, Harsha said, was necessary to protect the company from "political reprisals."
Foreign policy experts, however, question the reliability of surveys conducted by Chinese firms within the country.
"I think it's impossible to get reliable data, given that people in China are necessarily going to feel concerned that their answers are going to have wider implications," said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "One possibility is that people feel much more watched now.… They are responding less honestly to polling."
Harvard acknowledged that those living under authoritarian regimes are less likely to give candid opinions, but said the university stands by the results of the poll because researchers "adhered to the highest scholarly standards."
"[Intimidation] is always a possibility in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian country, but it does not make attempts by social scientists to measure public opinion illegitimate," Harsha said.
The Harvard study, conducted by scholars affiliated with the school's Ash Center for Democratic Governance tracked public approval for the Chinese central government—as well as lower levels of government—between 2003 and 2016. It found that public approval for all levels of government has increased during the 13-year period. The researchers published their findings in an academic journal in late 2019 and once again as a "policy brief" in July 2020.
While Harvard declined to identify the polling company in both reports, professor Anthony Saich, one of three researchers behind the study, told both the Economist and the New York Times in 2015 that he worked with Horizon Research to conduct the survey. Harvard did not respond to additional questions about why it is withholding information it readily provided five years ago.
Horizon Research was founded by Yuan Yue, a former official at the Chinese Ministry of Justice who now serves as Horizon's chairman. The company, now known as Dataway, has extensive business ties with the Chinese government, working with more than 20 state governments, according to a 2019 case study on the company. Horizon Research has also directly worked with Chinese government officials, hosting workshops for party officials and collaborating with an appendage of the State Council, the chief administrative organ of the Chinese state.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that every company based in China has a party committee that monitors its work, preventing Chinese firms from being truly independent of the government.
"The reality is that it is a Chinese company and there is a party committee associated with it," Cheng said. "And if there is a party committee associated with it, there is going to be insight on the process, the contracts, and the results, by members of the CCP. There is no Chinese company that is headquartered in China … that does not have a party committee."
In addition to concealing the researchers' ties with Horizon Research, the Harvard reports did not discuss the possibility that respondents might feel less comfortable giving honest answers to political questions. Cooper, the AEI scholar, said these sorts of studies should mention the possible impact of political pressure on the survey data.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with attempting to do polling in China as long as you explain very clearly who was polled under what circumstances and note the fact that they may not have felt free to respond accurately," he said. "But if they didn't present that data, I think it's problematic."
China has poured millions of dollars into the coffers of prestigious universities in an attempt to influence policymakers in the United States. Harvard has been a top beneficiary, acknowledging at least $74 million in gifts from Chinese sources dating back to 2014. Beijing has capitalized on its relationships in academia. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying touted the Harvard study on Twitter to claim that the regime "enjoys the highest rate of support and satisfaction among the Chinese people, as over 90% according to international surveys and the latest by Harvard University."