Democracy in East Asia
A fascinating study of how democracy is faring in East Asia, released late last year, deserves a closer look, particularly at this time of financial crisis, when self-styled socialist countries (think China and Vietnam) are doing relatively well after turning to the market economy and governments in the capitalist countries are taking over banks and other private enterprises.
The study ― a large-scale survey-research project in which research teams conducted surveys in five new democracies (South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Mongolia), one established democracy (Japan), and two non-democracies (China and Hong Kong) ― was published by Columbia University Press as a book called “How East Asians View Democracy.”While the study focused on the five new democracies, the data on China is perhaps the most interesting.
The surveys show that Chinese are more supportive of their government than people in any other country. In answer to the question, “Do you agree or disagree: Our form of government is the best for us?” 94.4 percent of respondents in China answered “yes.”
Ironically, only 24.3 percent of the people in Japan, which is the oldest established democracy in the region, agreed that their form of government was the best for them ― the lowest of all the countries surveyed.
And what do people in the “new democracies” think of their system of government? Surprisingly, support for democracy ranged from a low of 36 percent for South Korea to a high of 69.8 percent for Mongolia.
What is also striking is that a substantial majority of Chinese ― 81.7 percent ― asked if they were satisfied with the way democracy was working in their country, again answered “yes.”
Of course, their understanding of democracy may be different from that of people in other countries. The Chinese government maintains that it is practicing a form of democracy without holding national elections but “with Chinese characteristics” and, it appears, their people accept that explanation.
So, while the organizers of the surveys describe China as a non-democracy, the Chinese people seem to feel that a government that has presided over a booming economy, overseen a dramatic rise in the standard of living and responds to complaints from its people is a democratic government. And, regardless of whether the government is genuinely democratic or not by Western standards, the majority of its people seem to be satisfied despite criticisms on human rights.
Of course, this may not take into account the feelings of ethnic minorities, such as the Tibetans and Uighurs. And it certainly does not reflect the sentiments of human rights lawyers and people who sign petitions calling for political reforms.
The veracity of the responses does not seem to be in doubt. “We do think that the Chinese respondents are telling the truth to our surveyors, who are retired middle school teachers,” said Andrew Nathan, the principal editor. “They are not foreigners, they are not government agents, and we are offering confidentiality to the respondents.”
Considering that the Chinese economy has been booming while that of Japan has been stagnant for many years, it is natural to infer that respondents are rating their government according to its economic performance.
It would be interesting if similar surveys were to be conducted to study the attitude of Americans and Europeans towards their governments, and to what extent those perceptions relate to the existence of democratic institutions rather than economic performance.
One of the editors, Chu-yun Han of Taiwan, did say that East Asians ascribe a higher value to economic performance than people in other parts of the world, possibly because they have witnessed very rapid economic growth and so hold their governments up to a relatively higher standard.
An assumption underlying much western criticism of Beijing is that if the Chinese people were free to choose for themselves, they would choose democracy. This study, however, casts serious doubt on that presupposition.
Moreover, if citizens on their own support an authoritarian government, doesn’t that fact alone lend the government a democratic hue? Why strive for democracy when an authoritarian government can get the job done more efficiently?
However, one vulnerable spot in the Chinese government’s armor is its constant manipulation of the news ― its attempt to keep sensitive information from its people. If a government can retain its popular support only by keeping its people ignorant, then that government cannot be said to truly enjoy the support of the public.
Only after the Chinese government disbands its organs of censorship and propaganda can one know if it truly enjoys the support of the people.