There are 14 remarkable findings about China, Hong Kong, the US, free speech and elections, in the latest edition of the world’s largest survey of democratic attitudes, which has just been released
CHINESE PEOPLE FEEL better democratically represented by their system of governance than citizens of any other nation feel about their own, a major new study shows. The poll was organized by a European body known for its passionate defence of western liberal democracy.
Other fascinating findings:
Hong Kong people have a positive attitude to mainland China, and the majority DO NOT want more democracy, thank you very much.
Also: There are far more people complaining about a lack of free speech in the United States than in many other countries, including the allegedly “censored” Asian ones. How come? Because people in Japan, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Russia, do not share the overly worshipful attitude to free speech that we find in the west. The difference is key if you want to understand different communities, but is ignored in favor of a “west is right, east is wrong” attitude to the topic.
The newly released study is long and detailed, but we have picked out 14 interesting points with relevance to Asia, below. We also provide, here, a link from which you can download the full study (requires registration). The annual Democracy Perception Index is the world’s largest study of democratic attitudes in the world, gathering data annually from 52 countries in Asia, the US, Latin America, and Europe. It is conducted by Latana, a polling company, for the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Europe.
1) DEMOCRACY IN PRACTICE
Is your government serving the people? More than 93% of Chinese said yes, their government worked for the majority of citizens. But most Americans disagreed with regards to their own government, with 63% saying no, the US government served only a minority.
2) SATISFIED CITIZENS
Which communities are happiest with their governments’ provision of democratic representation? Stand up the Chinese and the Swiss, who were most positive that they were being properly represented. These two have the smallest gap (9%) between the people’s democratic aspirations and the amount of actual representation they felt they received.
Putting this fact and the previous one together, Chinese people have the most positive attitude to feeling represented.
Other countries had a clear “democratic deficit”—a measure of unhappiness about representation—the UK’s was 22% and Venezuela was bottom with a 55% gap between expectation and delivery of democratic representation.
3) WANT MORE DEMOCRACY THAN YOU HAVE?
No! We have plenty! Only 29% of Asians felt they were in need of more democracy. A significantly larger number of Europeans, 41%, were unsatisfied, but still less than half. Only in Latin American did a clear majority, 58%, feel that they lacked sufficient democracy. So why does the US push democracy so hard in Asia, rather than Latin America? It’s not because we want it.
The selected list in the image gives an idea of the wide variety of responses to questions about desiring more democracy. A full list would show that South Koreans and mainland Chinese have the least desire for more democracy, Hong Kong is further down the list, just above several European nations, and the UK and the US. Indonesia and Nigeria are at the bottom, with a strong desire for more democracy.
4) ENOUGH POLITICS ALREADY
Only one third of Hong Kong people said there was not enough democracy in their city, while two thirds said there was the right amount or too much, the survey showed.
Note how different this is to the way the Hong Kong people are characterized by the western media.
5) SO WHO HAS A DOWNER ON CHINA?
This one you can totally guess. Places with a negative perception of mainland China are the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and their supporters in Asia: Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
In contrast, places with a positive perception of mainland China are a much more varied list, including Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Ukraine, Thailand, Peru, Colombia, Malaysia, South Africa, Venezuela, Chile, and Singapore.
While the views of the first group dominate international discussion, the second group include the world’s most populous countries, including India and Indonesia.
Hong Kong people showed a positive perception of mainland China. This may surprise people who have read the works of reporters who tend to interview people on one side of the debate only.
6) POVERTY OR POLARIZATION
Who has the right priority? Is the battle against poverty the most important thing? Or the campaign to divide the world into “authoritarian” versus “free”?
Reducing poverty was the number one most important goal of humanity, said respondents to the survey, with 40% of people highlighting it.
In contrast, the drive to label some countries as “authoritarian” was of relatively little interest, with only 14% rating it as a goal.
7) IS FREE SPEECH IMPORTANT?
How important is it to have a raucous, totally unfettered media? For westerners, this is a huge YES. But in several countries, less than half the respondents rated free speech as important: these included Japan, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Freedom to be able to say anything you like was highly valued in the US (73%), but much less so in China (45%).
8) DO PEOPLE HAVE TO WATCH THEIR MOUTHS?
People are NOT free to express themselves, said almost one in three people in the US, 32%. That’s much higher than the global average, where 18% were unhappy with the free speech situation in their country. (In China, only 17% of people of people citizens felt people had to watch what they said.)
This does not mean that the rest of the world has less censorship than the US – it means that the underlying paradigms are different. Asians are less interested in free speech, and are very happy to sacrifice a measure of it in exchange for gaining enough stability to lift their populations out of poverty. And while being rude to members of the elite seems to come naturally to some groups (check the newspaper columnists in Australia for example), it shouldn’t be assumed that Asians want to do the same.
9) ARE ELECTORAL ARRANGEMENTS FAIR?
The places where people were most confident about the fairness of elections were China, Vietnam and Denmark, with only 5% feeling that arrangements for electing representatives were problematic.
Yes, they are free and fair, said the majority of respondents from Hong Kong, too. Only 24% of the city’s respondents said that their elections were not free or fair—this is a smaller number than in the US, where 30% felt elections were unfair!
Again, this is a very different impression to that given about Hong Kong internationally, where it is presented, absurdly, as a police state where locals have no say.
10) IS INEQUALITY A PROBLEM?
Only 5% of Chinese respondents said that inequality was a problem, indicating a high level of belief in their society’s fairness for all, while 42% of Americans said it was an issue, suggesting a serious problem. This doesn’t “prove” Chinese society is fairer, since Americans are likely to have a heightened awareness of equality, thanks to the prominence of identity politics. Also, China is more homogenous than the US.
11) WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON RUSSIA?
While most nations surveyed had a negative view of Russia, the ones with a positive view include some of the most populous countries, including China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The most negative to Russia were, yes, the US, the UK, Europe and their allies.
12) DOES THE US PROMOTE DEMOCRACY?
Is the US a force for good in terms of democracy? Yes, says the US and Europe. However, almost all places in Asia, including mainland China, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan felt that US’s influence on global democracy in 2021-2022 have been negative.
Note particularly how mainland China AND Taiwan AND Hong Kong all agree on this point. It appears that too much trouble has been stirred up in this region and people are getting frustrated. Just lay off and go back to your own side of the world, please, western friends in warships.
13) WHAT IF THERE WAS WAR OVER TAIWAN?
The US has been openly flirting with a strategy to goad China into taking military action in Taiwan, giving the western powers an excuse to organize the isolation of the fast-rising country. Clever strategy, but will it work?
The question is this: If China takes the bait and does invade, will the world cut ties with the world’s most popular nation? The answer, according to this survey, was yes and no. Out of 52 countries surveyed, the answer was divided 26 to 26. Half would approve the cutting of ties with China, half wouldn’t.
14) GEM IN THE DATA
When a large amount of statistics drops, data miners look for hidden gems. There’s one in this collection. The data shows that there is only one country that has a significantly positive relationship with both Russia and Ukraine.
The Russians gave China a positive response in the survey. So did Ukraine. This is probably because of long history of Chinese investment in Ukraine, Europe’s poorest nation (see image below). Only a small portion of Ukrainians (12%) were negative about the country, with the rest being neutral (52%) or positive (36%) about China.
This indicates that China is actually the best country to oversee a resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But it is unlikely to happen, because of western nations’ hostility.
BUT CHINESE CAN’T SAY ANYTHING BAD!
Some people will try, as they do every year, to declare that China’s figures are false because the 1.4 billion inhabitants live in a 24/7 state of fear, unable to say anything negative about the authorities. However, this is a ludicrous claim in a time when anyone who understands Chinese can encounter millions of critical comments whenever they log on to social media sites or join conversations in coffee shops.
Furthermore, the similarities in attitudes between China and Japan or Singapore or Hong Kong or Taiwan or all of the above shows that the time has come to retire the “China as giant prison” stereotype and be open to the fact that attitudes in Asia simply differ from those in the west.
And “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”. This is a lesson that many Asians have spent decades waiting for western media reporters to learn. And, in the majority of cases, we seem to be still waiting.
Image at the top shows Shenzhen, the world’s fastest growing city, and comes from Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash