Governance by Data: How China’s Party-State Keeps Its Pulse on the People 

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The 20th Party Congress in Beijing in November highlighted just how much power Xi Jinping and his closest allies have concentrated in their hands. Control is more centralized than ever, and surveillance is ubiquitous in China. While these trends have consolidated the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power and further reduced public opposition, such a system also presents some risks for the regime. As others have shown, in such an environment, information on public opinion or policy outcomes becomes less reliable due to pervasive censorship in the media and incentives for lower-level officials to falsify data. The lack of reliable information, in turn, can lead to ineffective governance and in extreme cases make leaders less aware of widespread discontent. This can then undermine the CCP’s legitimacy, including economic growth and the provision of public goods. The outbreak of protests against Covid-19 prevention measures (known as Zero-Covid) across the country in late November 2022 illustrates some of the risks of underestimating or misunderstanding public sentiment. 

There are a few tools that the Chinese party-state has at its disposal to monitor public opinion, including local government-managed hotlines, called “12345 hotlines,” where citizens can report their complaints. One particularly important source of information, however, is through surveys and analyses of large-scale trends conducted by third-party contractors that help the central and local governments better understand public opinion on a range of issues. This microfeature will focus on one such organization, the private company Dataway (零点有数), formerly known as Horizon Research (零点调查). The analysis is based on publicly available information on projects completed by the firm on behalf of the Chinese government, including local governments, as well as conversations with industry insiders.  

There are other companies that seem to conduct similar research, including Sina-owned Shanghai Midu Information Technology (上海蜜度信息技术有限公司). However, Dataway’s projects and collaborations with the government are the best documented in official and company resources. No other company seems to have the same breadth of relationships with provincial, prefectural and central government agencies; nor are there many companies that do research for both corporate and government clients. Dataway estimates that on average about half of its work is for the government and half is for private clients. It is also well-regarded internationally; for example, it is the only Chinese partner institution listed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report of 2020.  

Victor Yuan (袁岳), now Chairman of the Board, founded Dataway in 1992 in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, which relaunched China’s economic reforms. Since then, the company has grown significantly, and in 2021 it went public and listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The government’s need for research and evaluation has also grown significantly. Dataway estimates that in the coming years the market for government research will grow faster than that for business research.  

What Kinds of Projects Does the Government Commission? 

There are several kinds of projects that Dataway conducts for the Chinese government (see Figure 1). Typically, government agencies will publicly issue bids for projects, which include pre-studies to help gather information before the introduction of a new policy; policy evaluations; and data-driven analysis for cities. 

Figure 1: Dataway’s Work for the Chinese Government

Third-party evaluation of government agencies’ performance, something that the company has been doing for well over a decade, is particularly important and represents about 60% of its work for the government. In recent years, the government has awarded Dataway an average of 700 evaluations per year. Dataway is also the official third-party evaluation agency for relevant work of several ministries under the State Council.  

Third party evaluations are an increasingly common tool of Chinese governance and have been actively promoted by premier Li Keqiang. The evaluations largely consist of surveys conducted among the general public or specific groups to gauge their level of satisfaction with specific policies and public services. Clients can be central government ministries, local government agencies, and government research organizations.  

Here are a couple of examples: 

  • The Ministry of Culture (Ministry of Culture and Tourism since 2018) and the Ministry of Finance in 2012 hired Dataway to conduct surveys on people’s satisfaction with cultural services provided in demonstration zones operating in 31 provinces.  
  • Since 2016, The Institute of Procuratorial Theory of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the official state-run research institute for the Supreme People’s Procuratorate) has entrusted Dataway to conduct Annual Procuratorial Credibility Assessment surveys. Those surveyed include National People’s Congress deputies, regular people who have been involved with any cases, and the law community. The survey questions focused on the performance of procuratorates in all provinces. 

Dataway also publishes data from surveys it conducts on specific topics, including the quality of public services or current policies. In some cases, these analyses are not commissioned by the government even though they have explicit public policy implications and may be in response to perceived government needs. For example, the company published a variety of surveys and analysis on Zero-Covid and the pandemic over the past two and a half years. A survey published in April indicated that respondents were increasingly concerned about the economy and reported that while over 68.4 percent of respondents were satisfied with the dynamic Zero-Covid policy, 20 percent had concerns over the management of enforcement rules at the community level, quarantine facilities, and the timeliness and accuracy of information. An update from early December 2022 paints a different picture, with 50.7 percent of respondents opposing Zero-Covid and the share of those in support dropping to 49.3 percent. Moreover, 54.4 percent felt that there should be balance between economic development and epidemic prevention goals and that policies should be loosened. 

There are also other examples beyond the pandemic. In August 2022, Dataway conducted a survey on the public’s satisfaction with the central and local governments on a wide range of policy areas including: social security, elementary education, food safety, health care, Covid-19 prevention and control, public order, preschool, garbage disposal, cultural and sports facilities, employment services, transportation, environment, and utilities. The survey was conducted in 24 provincial capitals, as well as 4 municipalities and Shenzhen. Three provinces were excluded from the survey, Xinjiang, Tibet and Ningxia. 

The survey reported very high levels of satisfaction with the quality of public services, which were assigned a score. Covid-19 prevention and control got the highest score (82.37) and preschool education got the lowest satisfaction score (78.16), only a 4-point difference (see Figure 2). People were also generally satisfied with all levels of government, especially the central government (see Figure 3). This is remarkable considering how much lower satisfaction was in 2010, the last time the survey was conducted. In all cases there was a marked improvement compared to 2010. Since there wasn’t a way to review the methodology or to replicate this kind of study, it is unclear exactly how accurate these results are. It is worth noting that the results seem very positive even in the case of Covid-19 prevention policies where later surveys have shown growing dissatisfaction. 

Dataway sometimes submits survey results to the government directly rather than publish them, so publicly available data (including that in figure 2 and 3) may not reflect the entirety of the company’s research findings. For example, the company has collaborated on a regular basis with local governments, including Kunming’s municipal government, to provide them with regular performance assessments based on survey data. Clearly such data would be most useful to the government if it captured any discontent with its performance.  

There are other types of evaluations that Dataway conducts as well. The firm collaborated for over a decade with the government on improving the “12345 Hotline,” which is run by local governments. Most recently, Dataway conducted an evaluation of the hotline’s performance in 348 cities across the country in collaboration with the survey platform D3, which was also founded by Victor Yuan. The survey, which ran from June to August of 2022, appraised the quality of the service, problem resolution, and the capacity to receive complaints among other things. Dataway and D3 also included recommendations for areas where the hotlines may be improved. 

Dataway has also collaborated with the 12345 Hotline offices of the Hainan provincial government, and Nanjing, Hefei, and Suzhou municipal governments to draft official rules and standards for how third-party companies should conduct assessments of 12345 Hotlines. The rules were approved in July 2022. Dataway also helped the Hainan provincial government draft their “12345 Hotline claims classification standard” which was implemented in mid 2022. This is China’s first provincial level 12345 hotline claims classification standard which aims to improve systematic sorting and categorization of complaints.  

Cities including Wuhan, Changsha and Beijing have adopted a 12345 hotline dispatch algorithm developed by Dataway. The company prides itself on using exclusively Chinese software and hardware and the Huawei Atlas AI Intelligent Computing Platform. Dataway has engaged with the government to set standards in other areas as well. For example, it helped draft the 2010 national standard on conducting market, opinion, and social research. Dataway’s work on the 12345 Hotlines is an example of the company’s work outside of third-party evaluations. There are also many examples of surveys that the firm has conducted for the government focused on Chinese people’s opinions and living standards. For example, in 2016, Dataway completed a report with the United Front Work Department based on surveys focused on how Chinese people viewed their social class and aspirations. The Development Research Center of the State Council has commissioned Dataway to run phone and in-person interviews for the “China Livelihood Survey” since 2013. The survey was conducted in 31 provinces and aimed at collecting information on assessing the socio-economic conditions of the population as well as their levels of satisfaction. The survey spans across multiple topics ranging from employment and transportation to public security and housing. 

Dataway has also conducted surveys on the business environment since at least 1994. For example, in 2019, the company published a report on a survey it conducted on the business environment for private enterprises which included 35,500 responses from 41,275 companies across 200 cities from 31 provinces in China. Local governments have commissioned several studies of this kind including the 2022 “Sichuan Business Environment Evaluation Project” and the 2022 “Henan Business Environment Evaluation Project.” The relationship with the Henan provincial government has been particularly positive: in a 2021 press conference the deputy director of the provincial development and reform commission indicated that the 2020 results would be studied by various relevant government agencies to improve the province’s performance. This public statement is a window into how third-party studies conducted by private firms can be incorporated into the government’s policy process. 

Dataway’s role doesn’t stop at just providing information and is sometimes brought on as a consultant or implementer. For example, the company was invited to join local level advisory committees such as the Guangzhou Business Environment Advisory Committee and the Sichuan Business Environment Advisory Committee. 

Finally, the firm also conducts opinion surveys on foreign relations. For example, since 2005 Dataway has been conducting surveys on Chinese public opinion towards Japan for the China International Publishing Group. The surveys are published in conjunction with a Japanese organization which conducts the same survey among the Japanese public.  

Evaluating the Evaluators 

This overview captures only a small sliver of the interactions that exist between various segments of the Chinese party state and private research and consulting firms. Tracking reports that are accessible online can be a helpful tool in understanding the priorities and concerns of the Chinese government. In some ways, the relationship between firms like Dataway and the Chinese government is akin to that of some of the major international consulting or survey firms that provide services to governments around the world. In other cases, however, the services are aimed at making up for the lack of channels available to citizens in other countries to voice preferences over public policy, including more freedom of speech, a more independent civil society, and elections.

It is hard to evaluate the effectiveness of such third-party companies’ services because it remains unclear just how big of a gap there is between the information delivered privately to the government and what is made public. Moreover, although the government collects large amounts of data from companies like Dataway there is still little understanding of exactly how it is used. Clearly, in some areas, government officials trust and appreciate the research and rely on it to improve governance, for instance Dataway is part of Henan Province’s strategy to improve its business environment. However, there is a real question as to just how honest companies like Dataway can be and how this affects the information that filters to decision-makers. For example, the complete set of motivations and rationale that pushed the government to change the Zero-Covid rules in December 2022 may never be entirely clear, but clues point to a likely misunderstanding of the situation on the ground and a lag in the capacity to adjust quickly. The surveys that Dataway produced on the topic may have helped inform the decision to abandon Zero-Covid or may have come too late to make a difference. Ultimately, even if potentially a powerful instrument, surveys and public opinion research appear to be an imperfect substitute for a more flexible policymaking environment that responds more directly to bottom-up demands. 


For a lengthier discussion of public opinion in China, including recent data on the views of Chinese citizens on policy issues, please read our Big Data China feature on the topic. 

About the Author

  • Ilaria Mazzocco
    Ilaria Mazzocco is a senior fellow with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, she was a senior research associate at the Paulson Institute, where she led research on Chinese climate and energy policy for Macropolo, the institute’s think tank. She holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where her dissertation investigated Chinese industrial policy by focusing on electric vehicle promotion efforts and the role of local governments. She also holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins SAIS and Central European University, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Bard College.
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This microfeature was made possible through the generous support of the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions (SCCEI). Special thanks goes to those industry insiders who spoke to the author and to the SCCEI team: Scott Rozelle, Matthew Boswell, and Jennifer Choo, for the dedication to this collaboration. The author is also grateful for Scott Kennedy’s guidance and edits, as well as the hard work and professionalism of her CSIS colleagues, including the Trustee Chair’s Matt Barocas and Elyse Huang. A particular thank you goes to Maya Mei and CSIS Trustee Chair intern Judy Jiang who were invaluable in their help researching and developing the figures for the piece. All opinions and errors are the solely the authors'.

Cite this Page

Ilaria Mazzocco, "Governance by Data: How China’s Party-State Keeps Its Pulse on the People ," Big Data China, Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 21, 2022, last modified December 21, 2022,