China has often deviated from global findings in Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer study in years past and 2017 is no exception. While the rise of populism captured in the global Trust Barometer has been causing much alarm around the world, the picture in China is much less severe, though it still raises interesting questions on the way forward for the following institutions: Government, business, media and NGOs.
China is traditionally a “high-trust” market, where trust in institutions has remained among the highest globally in the years we have conducted the study. However, this market is not immune to the global decline in trust, with declines for all four institutions. This comes as no surprise in a year of serious, high profile scandals, such as children’s vaccines and online medical advertisements, where human lives were at stake.
Beyond the trust in institutions that are a staple of the Trust Barometer, this year’s study also investigated what we call the ‘lack of belief in the system.’ When asked about their sense of justice, hope, confidence, nearly one in two respondents (47 percent) in China was uncertain whether the “system” is working. This may seem like an alarming statistic but it is significantly better than the global results, where over half of the respondents (53 percent) believe that the system is failing them (the figure is 23 percent in China).
These findings have profound implications for China. They mean that what we do now will determine which way the balance tilts in the future, i.e. whether China will rise above the system mistrust that is plaguing many developed countries across the world.
There are reasons for optimism in the future. While trust in institutions has declined, trust in government remains strong, which is an endorsement of the Chinese government’s overall performance in steering the Chinese society and the economy. This also provides the government a mandate for it to continue taking the lead in addressing challenges.
But business is also expected to do more. Seventy-five percent of respondents believe “a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.” Yet, there remain significant gaps between what stakeholders view as important to building trust and companies’ performance against them. This provides an opportunity for business to restore declining trust, through exercising a high level of integrity, enhancing engagement with stakeholders and demonstrating commitment to helping solve larger societal challenges.
In communicating with stakeholders, authenticity matters most. Our study shows that 74 percent of respondents in China trust “blunt and outspoken” over “diplomatic and polite”, the preference for the former over the latter is consistent with global findings. However, where Chinese stakeholders differ from their counterparts across the world is their trust in “data” over “personal experience.” Close to two-thirds (64 percent) trust the former more, whereas the result globally was almost evenly split. There is also still a traditional respect for expertise in China, with technical experts remaining the most trusted. This indicates that facts and expertise still hold currency in China at a time when both are losing ground in some developed markets like the United States.
A solid foundation for protecting and restoring trust in China is therefore in place. While there are uncertainties among stakeholders, trust levels in institutions remain relatively high compared to other markets, and stakeholders are more rational rather than emotionally-driven, which is always welcomed in the marketplace of ideas. This points to an opportunity for businesses to earn greater trust and reputation over time. Their words and actions, now and in the future, will play a part in determining whether China remains free from the system mistrust that is prevalent in much of the world.
Jeffrey Yu is president, Edelman China.