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Keywords:

  • China;
  • generalized trust;
  • institutions;
  • culture;
  • social capital

Although China is an outlier in terms of generalized trust, it has attracted little scholarly attention so far. Employing survey data from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, this article seeks to address this gap. The article makes use of the comparative leverage provided by political and socio-cultural variation to investigate two plausible reasons for the high levels of measured trust in Mainland China: a spillover from high institutional confidence; and problems of measurement validity. The study finds a comparatively strong link between institutional confidence and trust in Mainland China, which suggests that high confidence in institutions contributes to high levels of generalized trust in this context. By situating the Chinese case in the debate on the institutional foundation of generalized trust, the article suggests a heuristic to interpret this finding and points out its theoretical implications. The findings on measurement validity are mixed. While the results do not suggest that political fear causes a significant distortion in measured trust levels, the study finds circumstantial evidence for a culturally induced response bias to the standard item in Mainland China. This would have crucial implications for comparative research on generalized trust beyond the Chinese context.