Information Accessibility, User Sophistication, and Source Credibility: The Impact of the Internet on Value Orientations in Mainland China

Authors

  • Jonathan J. H. Zhu,

    Corresponding author
    1. Professor in the Department of English and Communication at City University of Hong Kong. He was formerly Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences at University of Connecticut. His work has appeared in Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, Public Opinion Quarterly, International Journal of Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism Monographs, and elsewhere.
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  • Zhou He

    Corresponding author
    1. Associate Professor in the Department of English and Communication at City University of Hong Kong. He was formerly Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at San Jose State University. His work has appeared in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, International Journal of Public Opinion, Journalism Monographs, Intercultural Communication Studies, Media, Culture and Society, and Gazette.
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Address: Department of English and Communication, City University of Hong Kong, 83 Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Phone: (852)2788-7186 Fax: (852)2788-8894.

Address: Department of English and Communication, City University of Hong Kong, 83 Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Phone: (852)2788-7186 Fax: (852)2788-8894.

Abstract

The Internet has penetrated China at a rapid rate. However, there exist a wide range of constraining forces, such as governmental control, inadequate infrastructure, economic affordability, cultural perceptions, and language barriers. This paper tests the impact of access to the Internet and other sources of information, perceived credibility of the Internet and conventional media, and cognitive sophistication of Chinese audiences on the choice of rival value orientations such as Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism. The data come from a survey of 2,600 adults in Beijing and Guangzhou in November-December 2000. Multinomial logistic regression analyses show that perceived credibility of the Internet, cognitive sophistication, and access to Hong Kong-based television have a significant impact on the preference for particular value orientations. Analysis of the sub-sample of Internet users further reveals the importance of participation in online chatting. The findings bear important implications for the role of the Internet in the political development of transitional societies.

Introduction

The Internet has penetrated China, the most populous nation in the world, at a rapid rate. Of 2,600 adult residents in Beijing and Guangzhou interviewed for this study at the end of 2000, 27% had already adopted the Internet and another 20% were planning to do so in a year or so. While the Internet, as the latest technology of mass media, has enormous potential to bring profound changes to the information environment in China, there are a wide range of constraining forces at work, including governmental control, inadequate infrastructure, economic affordability, cultural perceptions, and language barriers (He & Zhu, in press)

Drawing on a theoretical model for analyzing the use and effects of conventional media in China (Zhu, 1995; 1997a; 2001), this paper tests the role of access to the Internet, perceived credibility of the Internet, and sophistication level among Chinese audiences in the formation and change of preferred value orientations. In particular, it examines how the adoption and use of the Internet affect Chinese audiences' identification with three competing value orientations: Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism.

Value Orientations in Contemporary China

Value orientation refers to an individual's preference for a value system. The preference is a psychological state and a behavioral pattern underlying all domains of beliefs, perceptions, opinions, attitudes, actions, and lifestyle. Thus, value orientation is at the heart of social science research. In societies undergoing a dramatic transition, there are often several major value orientations competing for followers. Our observations of the ideological landscape in China have revealed that Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism are the major rival value orientations during the country's current tacit transition toward post-Communism (He, 2000b).

Communism was undoubtedly the predominant value orientation for the Chinese populace for decades (Zhu, 1997b). As a value system, Communism, in the simplest operational terms, can be defined as selfless dedication to the well-being of society and mankind.1 The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made the indoctrination of Communism among the populace the ultimate goal of its propaganda efforts, such as promoting Communist models like Lei Feng, a 20-year old solider who sacrificed his life for the Communist cause (Zhu, 1990). However, Communism has increasingly lost popularity among the public (He, 2000a). The acceptance of Communism involves an internalization process that is a fundamental change and, thus, requires complete congruency with existing values (Kelman, 1958). Starting from the 1980s when the CCP began to embark on economic and structural reforms and improve the standard of living for Chinese citizens, it unexpectedly invited the rise of Materialism as a challenge to Communism.

Materialism can be defined as a persistent pursuit of immediate rewards and physical happiness, which is nothing new to the Chinese people. It had for centuries been the cornerstone of the Chinese cultural tradition that emphasized pragmatism and immediate rewards. Therefore, Materialism remained deeply rooted in individual value systems even when it was under severe attack during the Socialist Revolution (1950s), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and the Socialist Spiritual Civilization Movement (1980s). However, Materialism became a notorious symbol and disappeared almost completely from the public discourse as the CCP launched one campaign after another to divest private ownership, assault self-concern and self-rewarding behaviors, and promote non-materialistic values (e.g., “socialist spiritual civilization”). Materialism returned in the 1980s when the Chinese people were allowed to seek well-being for themselves. The Communist slogan “Looking Forward” (“Xiang Qian Kan”) has since been replaced by the Materialistic motto “Looking For Money” (pronounced also as “Xiang Qian Kan”) throughout the nation.

Post-materialism has emerged as a new alternative even though the competition between Communism and Materialism still occupies the center stage of the public discourse. Post-materialism is a way of life that downplays the importance of material rewards and emphasizes harmony with people and nature (Inglehart, 1979). Such a value system is widely considered viable only in post-industrial societies where people's basic needs have long been met. Nevertheless, we have increasingly observed anecdotal signs of Post-materialism among certain segments of the Chinese population. In our previous studies (e.g., Zhu & Rosen, 1993), however, it was difficult to distinguish empirically Post-materialism from Communism in the Chinese context because both were opposed to Materialism.

In the current study, we propose a new line of conceptualization to relate and differentiate the three value orientations along two dimensions (Figure 1). The first dimension draws on Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (1987). Materialism is a direct response to basic needs whereas Communism and Post-materialism deal with higher levels of needs such as well-being of the mankind or self-actualization. The second dimension involves individualism versus collectivism. Both Materialism and Post-materialism are individualistically oriented, whereas Communism is collectivist. This two-dimensional conceptualization highlights the diametrically opposing relationship between Communism and Materialism on the one hand, and the overlap between Communism and Post-materialism (in spiritual needs) and between Materialism and Post-materialism (in individualism).

Figure 1.

A conceptual mapping of Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism.

Causal Facotors of Value Orientations

A person's value orientation is largely formed during his/her socialization stage. Once formed, the value orientation usually remains stable and enduring. However, for people living in a society that is undergoing dramatic changes, such as China, their value orientations may involve adjustment or conversion as the influx of information and changing realities challenge the exisitng value systgem. As Bishop noted more than a decade ago (1989):

The media and official communication channels are very important in publicizing official demands, and they have been quite influential for relatively short periods, such as during the Cultural Revolution, but this influence seems to be declining. The decline may be due to the growing sophistication of the audience, thanks in part to travel, personal contacts, and a critical view of leadership fostered by the Cultural Revolution and by the educational programs aimed at peasants and workers. (p. 276)

Several observations can be made here. First, CCP propaganda efforts used to be effective. Second, their influence has been on the decline. Third, the decline can be attributed to the increase in audience sophistication. Fourth, increased audience sophistication has resulted from increased access to information. The decline in CCP's credibility has been furthered by improvements in education. Drawing on Bishop's observations and those of others, we have developed an integrated framework for media effects in China (Zhu, 1995; 1997a; 2001). The framework emphasizes the impact of three factors: the individual's access to information, cognitive sophistication, and perceived media credibility.

Information accessibility refers to the extent to which the audience has access to a diversified range of information. In particular, our concern is with the number of alternative sources of information available to the audience in addition to the official media. Previous research on mere exposure has demonstrated that exposure to information alone can make a big difference in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior (Zajonc, 1974). Conversely, as inoculation research has suggested, individuals living in a “germ-free” environment are more likely to be affected by a non-orthodox message when facing such a situation (McGuire, 1964). It is then reasonable to assume that those Chinese audience members who have access to alternative information could differ significantly from those who are only exposed to official messages (Zhao, Zhu, Li & Bleske, 1994).

There is a wide range of alternative information accessible to Chinese audiences, such as direct observations on overseas trips, word-of-mouth from others, international broadcasting, etc. Our previous research has found that Chinese audiences listen to cross-border broadcast programs most intensively during major domestic crises when there is a strong need for accurate information but the official media do not provide it (He & Zhu, 1994). The Internet is the latest, and perhaps most powerful, addition to this arsenal of information. However, one should not be overly optimistic about the impact of new communication technologies, because the Chinese government has always been able to levy heavy penalties for “undesirable” access and utilize sophisticated techniques to block “harmful” information, as in the case of fax machines, satellite broadcasts, and the Internet.

Cognitive sophistication refers to the extent to which an audience is able to make critical judgments and resist propaganda. While almost every scholar would agree that there is a negative relationship between cognitive sophistication and persuasibility, there is no established measure of sophistication. Therefore, educational attainment has traditionally been used as a surrogate for cognitive sophistication. Hovland and his associates were among the first to identify the impact of education on communication effects (Hovland, Lumsdiane & Sheffield, 1949). Hyman and his associates concluded that, based on their secondary analysis of longitudinal survey data in the United States over a period of 30 years, formal education could have an enduring impact on people's cognitive structure throughout their lives (Hyman, Wright & Reed, 1979). Recent research in cognitive psychology has further suggested that sophistication involves information schema developed from previous knowledge and experience.

Independent of their level of access to alternative information, Chinese audiences have become increasingly sophisticated partly because of a continuous rise in the population's educational level and partly because of their learning from past experience. Students of China have long observed that, while the CCP initially dealt with a naive audience, that advantage has inevitably vanished as time has passed: “It would seem that the Communists are engaged in a ‘race against time’. They must win the hearts of a substantial number of the Chinese before they outstay their welcomes [sic].” (Houn, 1961, p. 2)

Media credibility refers to the perceived believability of media content “beyond any proof of its contentions” (West, 1994, p. 159). Drawing on the classic persuasion research on source credibility (Hovland & Weiss, 1951), media credibility research has shifted the focus from characteristics of information sources, such as competence, expertise, honesty, and likable personality, to characteristics of media behaviors such as objectivity, accuracy, fairness, and lack of bias (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986). Media credibility research is now more concerned about channel effects such as differences between newspapers and television (Newhagen & Nass, 1989). Overall, empirical investigations in the West have found that media credibility is an important ingredient, along with message characteristics and audience characteristics, of effective communication.

We have argued elsewhere that media credibility plays a greater role in China, given the unique structure and functionality of Chinese media system (Zhu, 1997a). Based on a secondary analysis of six surveys conducted in China between 1985 and 1989, we have found unambiguous and consistent evidence that media credibility is the single most significant and strongest predictor of audiences' attitudes and behaviors, among a host of demographic, socioeconomic, and media exposure variables (Zhu, 1997a). The effect size of media credibility also appears to be much greater than what has been found in the West. However, our test of the impact of media credibility was incomplete because there was no measure of access to alternative information in the data used for the secondary analysis.

Hypotheses

Based on the above discussion of Chinese value orientations and the causative factors, we have formulated three hypotheses for empirical testing in a study that includes the Internet as one of the sources of alternative information. Each of the three hypotheses deals with a particular independent variable (i.e., cognitive sophistication, information accessibility, and media credibility), which in turn includes a number of sub-hypotheses for various value orientations (Table 1).

Table 1.  Hypothesized effects on value orientations Note. +: the independent variables increase the likelihood of accepting the first value orientation and rejecting the second value orientation; -: the independent variables reduces the likelihood of accepting the first value orientation and rejecting the second value orientation.Thumbnail image of

Hypothesis 1: cognitive sophistication has a significant impact on the preference of value orientations, in the following directions:

  • 1a. the more sophisticated, the more likely an individual is to prefer Materialism to Communism;
  • 1b. the more sophisticated, the more likely an individuals is to prefer Post-materialism to Communism;
  • 1c. the more sophisticated, the more likely an individual is to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism.

Hypothesis 2: information accessibility has a significant impact on the preferred value orientation, in the following directions:

  • 2a. the more exposure to the domestic media (newspapers, television, and radio), the more likely an individual is to prefer Communism to Materialism;
  • 2b. the more exposure to the alternative media (the Internet and overseas media), the more likely an individual is to prefer Materialism to Communism;
  • 2c. the more exposure to the domestic media (newspapers, television, and radio), the more likely an individual is to prefer Communism to Post-materialism;
  • 2d. the more exposure to the alternative media (the Internet and overseas media), the more likely an individual is to prefer Post-materialism to Communism;
  • 2e. the more exposure to the domestic media (newspapers, television, and radio), the more likely an individual is to prefer Materialism to Post-materialism;
  • 2f. the more exposure to the alternative media (the Internet and overseas media), the more likely an individual is to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism.

Hypothesis 3: perceived media credibility has a significant impact on the preference for value orientation, as follows:

  • 3a. the more credible the domestic media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Communism to Materialism;
  • 3b. the more credible the overseas media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Materialism to Communism;
  • 3c. the more credible the domestic media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Communism to Post-materialism;
  • 3d. the more credible the overseas media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Post-materialism to Communism;
  • 3e. the more credible the domestic media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Materialism to Post-materialism;
  • 3f. the more credible the overseas media (both conventional and new) are perceived to be, the more likely an individual is to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism.

Method

Sampling

The data came from a large-scale survey in two Chinese cities, Beijing and Guangzhou. The two cities, which are among the most developed in China, were chosen because they often serve as barometers of changing trends in China. As we have found in the diffusion of television and telephony in China, the difference in the diffusion of new communication technologies across the country is merely a function of time with major cities leading other localities by a few years (Zhu, 1997c; 1999). Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the findings from Beijing and Guangzhou will be generalizable to the rest of China in the near future. Of a number of major cities (e.g., Shanghai), we have chosen Beijing and Guangzhou to have an equal representation between the north (by Beijing) and the south (by Guangzhou).

We employed a multi-stage, non-proportional probability sampling (NPPS) procedure to generate a sample of adult residents in Beijing and Guangzhou. At the first stage, we randomly selected 100 residential communities (called Juwei in Chinese) in Beijing and 150 in Guangzhou and collected all residential addresses in the chosen communities to form our sampling frame.2 At the second stage, 30 households were randomly drawn from each of the chosen communities (or 3,000 households in Beijing and 4,500 in Guangzhou) to form the initial sample. At the final stage, an adult at an age between 18 and 74 was randomly selected for a face-to-face interview from each of the chosen households. Up to five visits were made to each of the chosen households/individuals before an alternative case was used from the initial sample. We commissioned a local marketing research company to carry out the in-house interviews during late November and early December of 2000.

The completed sample consisted of 2,664 adults, with 1,116 from Beijing and 1,548 from Guangzhou, which translates into a sampling error of ±1.9% for the entire sample at the 95% confidence level. As calculated using the RR3 formula of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (2000),3 the response rate for the entire sample is 50%, which is the average of the 61% in Beijing and the 39% in Guangzhou.

The sample has been weighted to offset the impact of our non-proportional sampling method. We first scaled down the Guangzhou sample by 39% to make it equal to the Beijing sample, which reduced the total sample size to 2,232 with 50% from each city. The resultant sample was then weighted based on the joint distribution of age and sex of the adult population in each city. Compared with the original samples, the weighted sample is more conservative in key statistics (e.g., the proportion of Internet users). All data reported below are based on the weighted sample.

Measurement

Value orientations. We asked in the survey a single question: “What is the most important goal in your life?” Respondents could choose only one answer from a list of three: “To contribute to the state and mankind,”“To create comfortable material conditions for myself and my family,” and “To realize my personal value.” These three answers correspond to the three value orientations we have discussed: Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism. One may argue that the statement of “To contribute to the state and mankind” is not an idea unique to Communism but rather the altruism embodied in many religious beliefs or ethical norms. However, from ancient times to the modern day in China, Communism appears to be the only value system that puts such singular emphasis on the idea of altruism. It is also important to note that “value orientation” is a descriptive concept, used to depict an empirical profile of what the public in a society actually thinks, whereas religious beliefs or ethical codes are normative terms, used by social elites to persuade the masses. There is also empirical evidence in our survey suggesting that the acceptance of altruism as measured in the study is highly correlated with other views supportive of Communism.4

Audience's cognitive sophistication. In the absence of a standard measure of cognitive sophistication, we have followed Hyman, Wright and Reed's (1979) argument that level of formal education is the best predictor of a person's cognitive structure.

Access to official and alternative information. Two types of alternative information are practically available to the respondents in our sample: the Internet for all users in both Beijing and Guangzhou, and Hong Kong-based television channels for all residents in Guangzhou. Therefore, we have created two dichotomized variables to measure the two sources of information: use of the Internet (user = 1, non-user = 0), and access to Hong Kong television (Guangzhou = 1, Beijing = 0). For comparison, we have also included three measures of exposure to the domestic media: reading newspapers, watching television, and listening to radio, all of which are measured by average hours per day.

Perceived media credibility. Parallel to the measures of information accessibility, we asked the respondents to indicate, on a 5-point scale, how credible they felt ten information sources to be: (i) domestic websites; (ii) domestic ICQ/BBS/Chat rooms; (iii) domestically-originated e-mail news; (iv) domestic newspapers; (v) domestic television; (vi) overseas websites; (vii) overseas ICQ/BBS/Chat rooms; (viii) overseas-originated email news; (ix) overseas newspapers; and (x) overseas television. To simplify the analysis, we later reduced the 10 sources into four categories: (a) the domestic new media (including i, ii, and iii); (b) the domestic traditional media (including iv and v); (c) the overseas new media (including vi, vii, and viii); and (d) the overseas traditional media (ix and x).

Control variables. Four demographic and socio-economic variables, including age, sex, occupation, and family income, have been included in the analysis to offset their contributions to the impact of information access or media credibility on value orientations.

Data Analysis

Because the dependent variable, Value Orientation, is a nominal variable with three categorical values, we have chosen to use multinomial logistic regression (MLR) to examine the simultaneous impact of the independent and control variables on the preference for the three value orientations. Two MLRs have been carried out, with the first for the overall sample including both users and nonusers of the Internet, whereas the second was exclusively for users. While the MLR of the overall sample tests the hypotheses, the MLR of the users' sub-sample provides additional insight into specific impact of Internet use. In addition to the MLR analyses, a discriminant analysis was performed to provide supplementary information about the grouping patterns among the independent variables.

Results

Adoption and Use of the Internet in China

Of the 2,664 respondents in the sample, 27% (30% in Beijing and 24% in Guangzhou) have adopted the Internet. The users have, on average, used the Internet for 2.4 years. They spend an average of about 9 hours per week on the Internet, which is less than watching television (14 hours) but more than reading newspapers (7 hours) or listening to the radio (3 hours). The users spend the largest amount of their online time on search for work- or study-related information, followed by reading online news and participating in online chat or discussions. The activities that attract the least amount of time are using E-mail, searching for personal interest information, and playing online games or other entertainment. The users allocate over 80% of their online time to local websites using the Chinese language, with the remaining time to overseas sites in either Chinese or non-Chinese languages. E-mail appears to be very popular among the Chinese users, with three out of four using it on a regular basis. Participation in online chat or discussions is also fairly popular, with 46% of the users having done so. Chat or discussions on personal hobbies rank at the top, followed by discussions on personal relations, government and politics, and investment.

Compared with users, non-users are significantly older, less educated, and more likely to be female, unemployed or retired, and married. Of various reasons cited for not using the Internet, lack of a computer is ranked first (by 58%), followed by expense of getting online (30%), lack of knowledge (by 24%), lack of interest (22%), home PC not connected (15%), concerns for bad influences on children (15%), and lack of time (12%).

Value Orientations in China

Our data has shown that Materialism is the most popular value orientation in China, attracting 59% in the sample, followed by Post-materialism, selected by 25% of the respondents. The least popular value orientation in today's China appears to be Communism, which is subscribed to by 16% of the respondents. Compared with their counterparts in Beijing, respondents in Guangzhou are significantly more oriented toward Materialism (64% vs. 54%), less favorable about Communism (12% vs. 19%) and Post-materialism (23% vs. 27%).

It is instructive to compare the findings with the results from a survey of 1,400 adult residents in Beijing by the Chinese People's University in 1986 (Zhu, 1990). The survey asked respondents to identify a most agreeable statement from a list of six items.5 Although the wording of these items is not exactly the same as that in our survey, the items represent more or less the same three value orientations, with Communism being the overwhelmingly popular choice (79%), followed by Materialism (12%) and Post-materialism (9%). As compared with our sub-sample from Beijing, the drastic changes in value orientations, namely a decline in Communism and a rise in both Materialism and Post-materialism, are evident.

Impact on Value Orientations (Overall Sample)

Table 2 reports the unstandardized MLR coefficients. A positive coefficient, when significant, indicates the effects of the corresponding variable on the logarithmic likelihood of an individual's choosing one value orientation (e.g., Materialism) over another (e.g., Communism).

Table 2.  Unstandardized multinomial logistic regression coefficients predicting value orientations Thumbnail image of Thumbnail image of

Testing of Hypothesis 1. The evidence is mixed for Hypothesis 1, which predicts significant effects of cognitive sophistication on value orientations. Contrary to H1a, the more-sophisticated a person is, the less likely the person is found to prefer Materialism to Communism (b=−.347, p < .001). On the other hand, consistent with H1c, the more-sophisticated an individual is, the more likely the person is to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism (b= .256, p < .001). Finally, H1b was not supported; there was no significant difference in the choice between Post-materialism and Communism across all levels of cognitive sophistication (b=−.092, p > .20).

Testing of Hypothesis 2. Hypothesis 2, which predicts significant effects of information accessibility on value orientations, is largely not supported because exposure to most domestic and overseas media, including the Internet, domestic newspapers, and domestic radio, does not seem to have any significant impact on the choice of value orientations. However, exposure to television represents a different and quite interesting scenario. On the one hand, the more a person watches domestic television, the more likely the person is to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism (b= .181, p < .05), which is opposite to what H2e predicts. On the other hand, as tested by interaction terms, the difference between the effects of domestic and Hong Kong television on value orientation is significant for Materialism vs. Communism (b= .252, or −.099 vs. 153, p < .05) and Post-materialism vs. Materialism (b= .207, or .181 vs. −.026, p < .05). Figure 3 illustrates the detected interaction effects.

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Differentiating effects of domestic and overseas television on value orientations.

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Differentiating effects of domestic and overseas television on value orientations.

As shown in Figure 3a, exposure to domestic television does not help to differentiate Communism and Materialism whereas exposure to Hong Kong television leads to a stronger preference for Materialism and a weaker preference for Communism. On the other hand, as shown in Figure 3b, exposure to domestic television results in a stronger preference for Post-materialism and a weaker preference for Materialism where exposure to Hong Kong television does not show such a differentiating impact.

Testing of Hypothesis 3. Hypothesis 3, which predicts significant effects of media credibility on value orientations, is generally supported. For example, the more credible a person perceives domestic websites to be, the more likely the person is to prefer Communism to Materialism (b=−.609, p < .001), as predicted by H3a, or to prefer Communism to Post-materialism (b=−.829, p < .001), as predicted by H3c. Conversely, the more credible a person perceives overseas websites to be, the more likely the person is to prefer Materialism to Communism (b= .361, p < .05), as predicted by H3b; to prefer Post-materialism to Communism (b= .648, p < .001), as predicted by H3d; or to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism do (b= .286, p < .05), as predicted by H3f. Most interesting is the consistent finding that new media (both domestic and overseas) have a significant impact on value orientations, whereas traditional media (both domestic and overseas) do not.

Impact of control variables. Age has been found to have a strong and consistent impact on value orientations, in the predicted direction. Other things being equal, the younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to choose Post-materialism over Materialism or Materialism over Communism. Also as expected, the wealthier the individual, the more likely he or she is to prefer Post-materialism to Communism or Materialism. Equally interesting is that family income has no impact on the choice between Materialism and Communism, which suggests that the difference between the pair is not economically driven. These findings confirm the need to control for demographic and socio-economic characteristics.

Spatial mapping of value orientations. Results from a discriminant analysis helps further elaborate the impact of value orientations. The analysis identifies two discriminant functions that maximize the differences among the three value orientations. Function 1, which has a Wilks' Lambda of .83 (df= 26, p < .001) and explains 70% of the variance, mainly involves age and media credibility whereas function 2, which has a Wilks' Lambda of .94 (df= 12, p < .001) and explains 30% of the variance, mainly involves age and media credibility whereas function 2 reflects cognitive sophistication and access to alternative information. The two functions taken together correctly classify 62% of the group members. Figure 4 displays the centroid (i.e., the geometric means) of each value orientation along the two functions.

Figure 4.

Spatial mapping of value orientations based on discriminant functions.

Function 1 of Figure 4 suggests that the older generations with high trust in domestic websites but low trust in overseas websites are more likely to follow Communism; middle-age generations with medium levels of faith in both domestic and overseas websites are more likely to prefer Materialism; and the younger generations with low confidence in domestic websites but high trust in overseas websites are more likely to adopt Post-materialism. Function 2 shows that the more sophisticated audiences who watch less Hong Kong television are more likely to choose Communism and slightly less likely to pursue Post-materialism, whereas the less sophisticated audiences who watch extensive Hong Kong television are more likely to lean toward Materialism.

In summary, the two functions emerging from the discriminant analysis are largely consistent with the two theoretical dimensions we have previously assumed to underlie the three value orientations (Figure 1). In particular, function 1 corresponds to the individualism vs. collectivism dimension whereas function 2 corresponds to the physical needs vs. spiritual needs dimension.

Impact of the Internet among Users

As mentioned earlier, the analysis above might be too simplistic to capture the impact of the Internet by including both users and nonusers in the same analysis. To find out specific effects of Internet use, we performed a second MLR analysis exclusively for users of the Internet. The new analysis includes not only the same independent and dependent variables as used in the overall sample but also six variables measuring use of the Internet, including (a) reading online news, (b) receiving and sending E-mail messages, (c) participating in chat rooms, ICQ, BBS, and online discussion forums, (d) searching for work-related information, (e) searching for personal interest-related information, and (f) playing games or other online entertainment, all measured in the number of hours spent per week. The results are reported in Table 3.

Table 3.  Unstandardized multinomial logistic regression coefficients predicting value orientations among Internet users Thumbnail image of Thumbnail image of

Because the range of variations in the sub-sample is necessarily narrower than that in the overall sample, the effect size of almost all independent and control variables as shown in Table 3 is therefore expected to be smaller. We are more interested, however, in the impact of the six online activities. Of 12 non-redundant coefficients, three are significant: online chatting for Materialism vs. Communism and Post-materialism vs. Communism, and online news reading for Post-materialism vs. Communism. In particular, the more time a person spends on online chatting, the more likely the person is to prefer Materialism or Post-materialism to Communism (b= .126 and .162, p < .05); however, the more time a person spends on reading online news, the more likely for the person to choose Communism over Post-materialism (b=−.117, p < .05).

Conclusions and Discussion

The current study aims to test the impact of three theoretical constructs, information accessibility, cognitive sophistication, and media credibility, on the preference for rival value orientations: Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism. This multi-causal, multi-effects research issue has generated more than a dozen hypotheses. As such, we have set up a highly rigorous test that is unlikely to find full support in survey-based data. However, we have obtained a number of interesting results that either previous findings or shed new light.

First of all, our study has revealed that Communism has become the least popular value orientation among Chinese audiences, whereas Post-materialism has already been adopted by a significant portion (about a quarter) of the populace. Compared with similar surveys in the 1980s, this represents both a sharp departure from the past and an unfolding path into the future. Although Materialism has become the prevalent value orientation among the Chinese populace, there is reason to believe that it will gradually fade out from its dominance and shift to Post-materialism. For example, there is an almost imperceptible decline in Post-materialism and increase in Materialism along the age dimension (Figure 5), with Post-materialism being more popular than Materialism among the youngest cohort. All things considered, there are at least three areas that can be pursued along this line of research in the future: (a) cross-validating the measurement of the three value orientations,6 (b) monitoring the dynamic process of the rise and fall among the value orientations, and (c) exploring the consequences of the value orientations.

Figure 5.

Value orientations by age.

More importantly, our analyses have shown that Chinese audiences members' choice among value orientations is influenced by media credibility, cognitive sophistication, and access to alternative information, in that order. These causal factors altogether define a conceptual mapping that not only supports the existence of two dimensions (i.e., collectivism-individualism and basic needs-spiritual needs) underlying Communism, Materialism, and Post-materialism, but also provides substantive meanings that help to interpret the two dimensions. The significance of this two-dimensional conceptualization lies in its ability to relate and differentiate the three value orientations. Otherwise, it would be quite easy to see the diametric clash between Communism and Materialism but rather difficult to conceive the fundamental difference (i.e., collectivism vs. individualism) between Communism and Post-materialism, which we encountered in our previous research (e.g., Zhu & Rosen, 1993), or the common ground (i.e., in individualism) between Materialism and Post-materialism, which is not readily obvious until a third element (e.g., Communism) comes in as a point of comparison.

While the finding that media credibility is the strongest predictor of Chinese audiences' attitudes confirms what has been found in our previous research (Zhu, 1997a), the evidence presented here is more direct and unequivocal because the current study involves a simultaneous test of all key causal factors, whereas media credibility was previously tested in the absence of access to alternative information. A new twist has emerged, unexpectedly, from the current study, that perceived credibility of the new media (i.e., the Internet) is far more important than that of conventional media. More interestingly, the pattern holds for both domestic and overseas media. This may suggest that credibility of the new media is more sensitive to ongoing trends in contemporary China. More research is needed to help us fully understand the nature and implications of this differentiation between the old and new media.

Cognitive sophistication, operationally measured by educational level, presents a mixed picture. It significantly predicts the choice between Post-materialism and Materialism in the expected direction (i.e., the more sophisticated audiences are more likely to prefer Post-materialism to Materialism) in both the overall sample and the sub-sample of Internet users. On the other hand, it has no impact on the choice between Post-materialism and Communism in both the overall sample and the sub-sample of Internet users. Given the assumption that the two value orientations differ primarily along the individualism-collectivism dimension, this finding suggests that cognitive sophistication has nothing to do with self-interest or altruism (i.e., the highly educated are just as selfish, or generous, as the poorly educated, see the parallel lines in Figure 6b). Our original hypothesis (H1b) is too simplistic to accommodate this plausible scenario.

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Preference for value orientations by education.

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Preference for value orientations by education.

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Preference for value orientations by education.

The most challenging question in our findings is that sophistication has a significant and strong impact on the selection between Materialism and Communication but in an opposite direction to what has been hypothesized (H1a). A closer look at Figure 6a reveals that, while the level of Materialism goes down almost linearly as education goes up, the acceptance of Communism stays around the 15–20% level for most of the educational groups. It is only those with a postgraduate degree, accounting for 2% of the sample, whose preference for Communism is significantly higher (36%). Therefore, it appears that the observed impact of sophistication on the choice between Communism and Materialism is primarily a function of the negative relationship between education and Materialism. Still, it does not help explain why sophistication does not have the anticipated negative impact on Communism. One can speculate such possible causes as the overlapping between Communism and altruism that is more popular among better-educated people, or social desirability that may also be more salient to sophisticated respondents. We will further explore these and other possibilities in future research.

Finally, the study has found weak evidence for the impact of the Internet. In our analysis of the overall sample, use of the Internet (a simple, dichotomous measure of yes and no) fails to show any impact on value orientations. When examining the sub-sample of Internet users, we have found only online chatting, out of six online activities, to have some impact. Reading online news is significant in one instance, but in a direction opposite to the hypothesis. While we are puzzled about the general weak (or lack) of Internet power in the study, it is helpful to recall at least two characteristics of this study. First, our test of Internet impact is in the presence of more than a dozen other variables, which has removed all possible confounding effects from other variables. In fact, a bivariate analysis would suggest a strong impact of the Internet on value orientations (Table 4). For example, compared with nonusers, Internet users are less likely to subscribe to Communism (by 3%) and Materialism (by 13%) but far more open to Post-materialism (by 18%). However, these differences vanished when other independent and control variables were included to share the impact on value orientations.

Table 4.  Preference for value orientations by education. Thumbnail image of Thumbnail image of

Second, the Internet is still new to Chinese users, two-thirds of whom have adopted the new medium within the past 24 months and will need some time to fully demonstrate the potential impact on them. This possibility will be tested in our follow-up surveys. Of course, informed by media effects research history (e.g., Klapper, 1964), we need to be prepared to find “limited effects” of the Internet in a rigorous test that controls for the impact of all other intervening variables, even a few years down the road when the Internet penetrates most households in China.

Footnotes

  • 1

    We believe that Communist value orientation differs from the ideology of Communism and Communist polity that involve, among other things, coercive functions and operations of state apparatus.

  • 2

    Because this is the first wave of a three-year panel sample, we have intentionally used a larger sample size to offset a possibly higher attrition rate in Guangzhou, based on our previous experience with panel surveys in both cities.

  • 3

    The formula defines response rate as the number of completed interviews divided by the number of interviews, non-interviews (refusal and break-off plus non-contacts plus others), and the estimated eligible cases among status unknown cases.

  • 4

    For example, 62% of those who selected the altruistic notion “completely agreed” to the statement that “It is necessary to continue learning from the Lei Feng Spirit in the new millennium,” as compared with 41% of those who chose Materialism or 37% of those who prefer Post-materialism. Likewise, 33% of those in favor of the altruistic view “completely agreed” to the statement that “In the final analysis, Communism is still superior to Capitalism even though Capitalist countries are currently quite advanced,” as compared with 15% of Materialists or 14% of Post-materialists. The difference in both cases is highly significant beyond the .001 level.

  • 5

    Of the sample, 30% chose “To contribute to human beings' progress,” 26%“to contribute to country's prosperity,” 23%“to work hard for my organization's success,” 12%“to work hard to make more money,” 5%“to compete with nobody, just enjoy my life,” and 4%“to study hard to make myself famous.” Answers 1, 2, and 3 correspond to Communism, answer 4 to Materialism, and answers 5 and 6 to Post-materialism.

  • 6

    As shown in Figure 6, age has already provided some criterion validity to the single measure employed in this study. For example, the younger the respondents are, the more likely they are to accept Post-materialism and reject Communism, which cannot be simply interpreted as the rise of individualism because young cohorts are also less interested in the individualistically oriented Materialism.

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