A foundational question in political behavior is whether the public possesses structured political preferences, something we can call ideology. The nature of ideology under authoritarian rule is particularly mysterious. In this paper, we examine the structure of ideology in Chinese public opinion using a nationally representative urban survey. We show that ideology in China is organized around a left-right economic dimension and an authoritarian-democratic political dimension, and that the most politically sophisticated individuals are the least likely to constrain their ideological preferences to one dimension. By analyzing the correlates of ideology, we see that younger and better-educated individuals are the most likely to favor free markets, and that while members of the Communist Party no longer possess any sort of distinct economic preferences, they are markedly more authoritarian. We argue that individuals can acquire a weakly structured understanding of politics in the absence of open partisan conflict.
In spatial models of political competition in democracies, citizens vote for the party or candidate that is the closest to their own ideological position, while in valence models, voters decide on the basis of non-policy factors, such as competence. What remains unclear, however, is whether citizens in authoritarian regimes use spatial or valence considerations to guide their decisions to participate in politics. This study uses data from the 2015 Chinese Urban Governance Survey to measure the ideology of Chinese citizens, and estimates an empirical stochastic model to explore how Chinese citizens use ideological distance and valence to determine how they want to participate in politics. The results show that valence issues, such as perceived government competence, play a larger role in political participation than ideology, and that in equilibrium, both the Communist party and the potential opposition should converge on the center of the ideological space.