The Personal Affairs of 6,000 Chinese Citizens

(yWeekend)  The Personal Affairs of 6,000 Chinese Citizens.  By Ma Jun (马军).  August 2, 2007.

[in translation]

What has changed with the sexual activities and relationships of the Chinese people over the past six years?  Recently, the published research results at the Chinese Renmin University Sexual Sociology Institute website challenged the general beliefs of many people.  During an interview with our reporter, Professor Pan Suiming said that this showed the worth of sociological research.

More than 6,000 people around the nation participated in this sex survey.  The response rate was top in the world because the survey respondents included old men in remote places and middle-aged housewives in hutongs.  The survey questionnaire covers extra-martial affairs, sexual preferences and other private matters.

Why would so many people be willing to answer these extremely private sex questions?  What methods does Professor Pan Suiming use in order to get these strangers to be interviewed?

<The Sexual Activities and Relationships of Chinese People: 2000-2006> was the project that the team led Pan Suiming recently completed.  A total of 6,010 persons participated in this face-to-face survey across the county.  The Ford Foundation contributed 1.6 million yuan for this project, and they hired a research company to undertake the field work.

Pan Suiming said: "Our actual survey target was supposed to be 7,553 persons.  The response rate was 79.6% with about 1,500 persons refusing to cooperate.  But this response rate may be the top of the world."  It was not easy to accomplish this.

The first "secret of success" was that the interview must not take place at home.  Presently, most survey research in China consisted of knocking on the door and filling out the questionnaire right there and then.  Sex surveys cannot be done this way.

"If I ask you in front of your family members whether you have a sex partner, would you tell me?"  The confidentiality of this survey is paramount.

So the most important work is to invite the subject to the interview facility.  Pan Suiming said that their workers spend most of their energy doing that.  Some people are unwilling to come not because the survey has to do with sex but because they are too busy.

Obviously, it is necessary to explain what the survey is about.  Certain rural people may not understand, so you say that it is about "marital life" and they will understand.

The researchers have all received special training.  Most of them are middle-aged persons.  When they are older, they seem trustworthy.  Young people are less suitable -- when a 20-year-old interviewer asks a 40-year-old about sex-related issues, he might be slighted.  "The subject may feel that a 20-year-old person knows nothing!"

A middle-aged man is more polite and understanding.  In Professor Pan's view, "Young people are ruder nowadays.  Middle-aged people are more polite at least."

The attitude is the key.  The minimum requirement in social research is to treat people equally.  The students who major in the social sciences at the Chinese Renmin University have been taught this point from their first year.  "What is social research?  I ask them to remember this principle from the very beginning.  The subjects are under no obligation to answer your questions and you are just causing trouble for them.  Even if you give them a little present or some money, do they need it?"

The average incentive for participating in the survey is about 20 yuan.  But Pan Suiming said that this only represents their gratitude.  He denied that it had much use in attracting the subjects.  "If I gave you 20 yuan in Beijing to ask you about your sex life, would you come down to our interviewing room?"

You must not say "Please cooperate with us?"  Why should they cooperate with you?  "Many social surveys make this mistake because they are arrogant when they speak to people.  They are doomed to fail.  Your subject has nothing to do with me.  I don't work for you.  I have the right to make a choice."

In Pan Suiming's view, gratitude is important.  "When people tell you about their private matters, you ought to thank them.  If you don't believe me, you try to ask someone in the street and see if they respond."

This sex survey covers the whole country, including certain remote mountainous areas in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Ningxia.  But even in these remote areas, people have no problems with doing a sex survey.

The principal difficulty came from elsewhere.  Many of the rural residents do not have reading habits.  Many people said that they only reached junior middle school education and they were very slow when they read the questions on the notebook computer.  They look at a single sentence for a long time.  They often could not understand certain questions and this was what the interviewers spend the most amount of time dealing with.

After the first survey in 2000, Pan Suiming had the sense that the Chinese people was far and away not as conservative as people imagined.  The key is to let people be interviewed in an atmosphere where they feel at ease.  When you ask people about personal matters in an inappropriate place at an inappropriate time, they will obviously ignore you.

Sensibilities matter to the Chinese people.  The subjects of the interview will not reject you outright.  This helped Pan Suiming greatly.  "The rural peasants are embarrassed to reject you.  You have traveled a long way and you spent a long time trying to persuade him.  He feels embarrassed.  The lower social class a person is from, the harder it is for him to refuse you.  Upper class people would ignore you -- why should I respond to these questions of yours?"

Although there is no separate data tabulations by rural and urban residents, Pan Suiming's impression was that the response rate in rural areas was higher.

The team leader is the person who knocks on the door, but the interviewer is definitely going to be someone else.  That is to say, an interviewee will encounter a total stranger when he/she enters the interviewing room.  He is comfortable to respond to someone whom he has never seen before.

The fact that people are willing to open their hearts to total strangers on the train illustrates this phenomenon.  First, they don't know each other from before.  Second, they will never meet again -- they will go their own ways and never see each other again.  These are the two reasons why people dare to speak out on the trains.

Professor Pan Suiming said: "Many people think that your best friends are the best confidants.  Wrong!  Married couples do not tell the truth to each other, so best friends won't either.  Total strangers can in fact be best at keeping secrets."

In the closed space of the interviewing room, there are only two persons.  This arrangement is based upon security considerations.  "For any social research, you can evaluate it based upon whether you are being considerate about the others.  Research fails when you do everything for your convenience instead of considering the comfort and confidentiality of others.  Everything that we came up with was for one purpose: we want to make people more willing to respond."

But when you insist the interview subject must come down to the interview room, he/she may not be willing to come.  Pan Suiming would rather lose that interview subject.

Also, a one-to-one interview is always conducted by an interviewer of the same sex.  For such topics, a man might tell a woman but there is no way that a woman would tell a man.  Certain problems are not even discussed between husband and wife, so why would they tell you?  A same-sex interviewer would remove one barrier at least.

Professor Pan Suiming repeatedly stated that they conducted their interviews with notebook computers.

Computers make it easier for people to tell the truth.  A computer will not render moral judgment on you.  The sense of security is far greater than facing a human, even if that is your friend.

"Very few people use this method in China today.  In 2000, we were the first to do so in China.  People might be able to do that today, but I am not aware of it."

It is a good thing that many people are aware of computers nowadays.  In those remote villages, people may not have seen a computer in person but they have at least heard about computers.  Furthermore, the first section of the questionnaire is not sensitive (e.g. you are asked about your education).  The interviewer sits next to the interview subject and answers together by showing how to operate the computer and use the keyboard in a short training session.

About one-third of the way through, there would be a pop-up frame to indicate that all the following questions are related to sex.  At that point, the interviewer will move to sit opposite the interview subject.  The cover of the notebook computer will be raised so that the interviewer cannot see which keys are being pressed.  It was the biggest consideration here to make sure that the interviewer does not know.

When the interview subject looks perplexed as if he/she don't understand certain questions, the interview must take note and offer help.  If the interview subject was hitting the keys too quickly, the interviewer must make a reminder to take the task seriously.

There are many sensitive terms that the interviewer cannot bring up.  Even if he/she can say it, the interviewee may not like it.  How can you say that?  A special characteristic of the Chinese people is that you can do something but you cannot talk about it.  You cannot listen to it; if you hear it, then it is filthy stuff.  Pan Suiming smiled and said: "You find the most intimate friend and ask, 'How many times did you screw last night?' and see if he/she will answer!"

The reporter read about some of the survey questions at the Sexual Sociology Institute website, including "Sexual relationship includes sexual intercourse (making love); it also includes the stimulation of the sexual organs with the hand and mouth; it also includes the sex life between members of the same sex.  Have you had a sexual relationship?" and so on.

There are many sex surveys in the word, including the Hite and Kinsey reports.  These are famous among the general public, but the academics do not regard them as important since neither Hite nor Kinsey used random and representative samples.  Pan Suiming said that Internet surveys are just as meaningless as the Hite and Kinsey studies.  "We won't even glance at the Internet surveys."

"What percentage is this of?  Can you be sure with an Internet survey?  You cannot determine the denominator.  Is the denominator the netizens?  What kind of netizens?  You will never be able to explain?"

The survey universe of Pan Suiming and associates is all adults citizens between the ages of 20 and 60 in China.  Within this universe, they drew a complex sample and then they calculate the percentage of people doing certain things.  The population denominator is fixed.

This is not just about a sex survey.  If an Internet survey was not based upon a random sample, the respondents could be meddlesome busybodies, or persons who are affected, or persons who are not affected.  In any case, you have no idea what the denominator is.

"What is the meaning of that survey then?" asked Pan Suiming.

Nevertheless, Pan Suiming has recently posted his survey on the Internet.  He said that social scientists all realize that there is a large difference between Internet and real surveys.  He wanted to test how the survey results differ.  He wanted to get some benchmark data so that all Internet surveys can be adjusted by the same factor.


Here is the interview of Profession Pan Suiming by yWeekend.

Q: What is the difference between the project now versus in 2000?
A: The best result is that we can make a historical comparison.  According to our information, this is the first instance in the world.  The famous Kinsey and Hite reports did not have such comparisons.  This comparison shows how much change has occurred with respect to sex in China over the past six years.

Q: You suggested in this report that "the sexual revolution has succeeded in China."  Some netizens have their doubts and think that your assertion is just sensationalistic.
A: It is normal to have differences in opinion.  Most public members do not engage in researching this subject and it is natural that they don't understand.  This is not a question about who is right or wrong, but it is a professional issue.

Q: Does this have anything to do with the sexual revolution in the western world?
A: It is not the same.  There are some common points, but the differences are great.  The most basic point about the sex revolution in China is the separation of sex and reproduction caused by the family planning policy. In this regard, there is no comparison with China by the United States and other western countries.  They just don't have that kind of policy.
Another point is the change in social control.  There is a vast expansion of personal freedom in personal life compared to twenty years ago.  The new China was founded more than fifty years ago, and nothing like this has happened before.  Nobody cares anymore.  In the past, there was the saying: the eyes of the revolutionary masses are snow-bright clear.  Nowadays, their eyes are still snow-bright clear but they cannot open their eyes to look (laughter).

Q: I don't understand how family planning resulted in the sex revolution.
A: The one-child-policy in the 1980's is finally showing the consequences today.  The separation of reproduction and sex is its consequence.  The first generation has finally reached the age of marriage.  The single child of the 1980's is now about 25 or 26 years old.  The impact of the policy on sex is beginning to exhibit itself.
The biggest change is that the single child is unlikely to have many children.  When two single child gets married to each other, are they likely to have two or more children?  The separation of sex and reproduction has become their essence.  They cannot possibly have a second child!  They cannot possibly have the idea of having multiple children.

Q: You mentioned that there is more diversity in sexual activities between spouses and this led to the sexual revolution.  But most people do not link spousal/partner relationship with the sexual revolution.  How can they lead to a sexual revolution?  I find this hard to understand.
A: This is so easy to understand.  It used to be sexual intercourse.  Nowadays it is called making love.  In the past, you have a sex life like pigs and dogs.  Nowadays you have a sex life like human beings.  What else is this but a sexual revolution?  The sexual revolution around the world includes sexual activities such as those between spouses.

Q: When you bring up the subject of sexual revolution, quite a few people get worried about the moral degeneration of society?
A: What does the term "sexual revolution" mean?  Any short-term drastic change is a revolution.  The term "revolution" is not a political term; it is a neutral term which carries no value.  It depends on whether big changes occur during this short-term period.  If the changes are small, then this is just a evolutionary process.
But our data told us that China has not been like that over the past few years.  There has actually been some huge changes and that is why we call this a revolution.  As to how you evaluate this -- as either good or bad --, that is secondary question and beyond what we are talking about.  The key is to arrive at the right numbers.  If you cannot get the right numbers, then any discussion is futile.

Q: Are you saying that the sexual revolution has nothing to do with morality?
A: It obviously has nothing to do with morality!  The whole world is like that.

Q: In your summary report, you reported that the percentage of multiple sex partnership reached 25.3% in 2006.  Does it mean that one quarter of our society has multiple sex partners.  Could it be that much?
A: From 2000 to now, you are the first person who said that the number is too high.  In 2000, we published a figure of 16.6%.  At the time, the Internet was not well-developed yet.  Everybody that I spoke to said that my number was too low.  Over these years, you are the first person who told me in person that the number was too high.

Q: Among entrepreneurs, the percentage of multiple sex partnership reached 43.9%.  Among male entrepreneurs, the number reached 68.4%?
A: You see, you are once again the first one who tells me that my number is too high.  Everybody that I know tells me that the number is too low.  We do not have a lot entrepreneurs in our survey samples.  We only have just over 200 persons.  This group of people accounts for only a small proportion of the population.  Whenever a group is rare in the population, the percentage gets fuzzy although we see that the percentage here must be at least higher than other groups.  Of course, people can have different interpretations about the same data.  Nobody can be the expert in everything and nobody can study everything in detail.  Most people can only make a determination based upon their own judgment.
Q: You mentioned that the diversification of sexual activities among married couples has caused a sexual revolution.  But most people would not associate monogamy with a sexual revolution.  How can it cause a sexual revolution?  I find this hard to understand.
A: This is very easy to understand!  In the past, it was sexual intercourse.  Nowadays, it is making love.  In the past, your sex life is like that of pigs and dogs.  Nowadays, you have the sex life for humans.  Isn't this a sexual revolution?  The sexual revolutions around the world all include sexual activities, and that naturally includes the sexual activities between married couples.

Q: You bring up the sexual revolution in China.  Many people are deeply worried that society has become morally bankrupt.
A: What is the meaning of the term sexual revolution?  A drastic change in a short period of time is called a revolution.  The term revolution is not a political term.  It is a neutral term.  It does not carry any value.  It depends on whether a huge changes has occurred over a short period of time.  If the change is not huge, then it is an evolutionary process.
But our data told us that reality in China was not like that.  There has been an actual huge change and that is why we call it a revolution.  As to how you assess it as either good or bad, that is a question at a different level and not within the scope of our current discourse.  The key is to obtain accurate numbers.  If the numbers are wrong, then it does not matter how you assess it.

Q: You mean to say that the sexual revolution has nothing to do with morality?
A: Obviously it has nothing to do with morality!  It is the same everywhere in the world.

Q: You have a report that claimed that the neighborhood that one lives in affects one's sexual behavior.
A: The immediate environment in which you live in, including all your neighbors, actually influences your sex life.  In the past, we seldom pay attention to that.  It would seem that this is a personal decision but it actually is not.  There are too many reasons behind it.  This is what we study in sociology.

Q: This is not easy to understand.  When one lives in a neighborhood, that can affect one's sexual activity.  No?
A: If it is easy to understand, then there is no need for us to do anything.  This is the significance of social research.  There are some things that you never imagined but they appear as the results of research.  After we discover this phenomenon, we can begin to analyze it.
For example, if a neighborhood does not have many divorcees or people with multiple sex partners.  That could have an influence.  But it has to be a real neighborhood.  There are many neighborhood committees in China, but that concept is different from a neighborhood.
There are also differences between neighborhoods.  Those people who live in Ziyu Villa are definitely different from those who live in Huilongguan with respect to sexual activities.  For example, the people who are still living in the hutongs which are scheduled for demolition have a certain common model.  We had not paid any attention to them in the past, but we are studying them now.
This is the good thing about social research in that we can get results that are different from common conceptions.  Which do you believe?  If you believe in our research, then you better change your conceptions.