By Xulio Ríos
The Pew Research Center in Washington estimated in 2013 that 85% of Chinese people approved of the management of their government, while in the US only 35% felt likewise. In Europe, the majority of governments obtained similar degrees of acceptance with the vast majority remaining below 50%. In January 2018, the Edelman Trust Barometer, an American index that measures the level of confidence of citizens in their governments, offered figures of 84% for China and 33% for the United States. In May 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, the China Data Laboratory of the University of California indicated that 88% of Chinese preferred their political system to any other.
In April 2019, the Pew Research Center contextualized the evolution of public confidence in the US since it began compiling data. In 1958, 75% of the population trusted their government (Eisenhower’s presidency). In 2007, the figure had dropped to 30% and in 2019 to 17%. In 2020, it was reduced to just 12%.
Another 2020 study at the instigation of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation (“Understanding the Resilience of the CCP,”), offered interesting conclusions from thousands of interviews with Chinese citizens conducted between 2003 and 2016. The sample highlighted the continued satisfaction of Chinese citizens with their government, especially at the central level, which increased from 86.1% in 2003 to 93.1% in 2016. At the local level, the level satisfaction levels increased from 43.6% in 2003 to 70.2% in 2016.
Mahatma Gandhi said that “democracy can only exist based on trust.” Chinese public opinion establishes its opinion based on a perception based on how government actions improve people’s lives and it should be noted that in the course of the 21st century, public management in China has made improving the wellbeing of its citizens the central subject of reform. This explains the substantial increase in income (per capita income exceeded $ 10,000 compared to $150 in 1978), the improvement in public services, health care, social security and welfare in general, etc. And although much remains to be done to mitigate the inequalities that still exist, there is broad consensus regarding the sincerity of the commitment to overcoming them. This still needs time, but it is an imperative on which the Chinese political system depends – And the CCP knows it.
China is not a liberal democracy (nor does it claim to be), but it would be inaccurate and unfair not to recognize that it enjoys a level of civic support that many Western democracies would be envious of. ‘China is another planet’, said the French philosopher Guy Sorman, and its bureaucratic tradition coupled with competent management is fully competitive with liberalism.
Reducing this system to a dictatorship based on the seizing of absolute power at the cost of ignoring the well-being of the population or its indiscriminate repression, ignores the legitimacy provided by the demonstrated ability to solve basic problems as well as the will to defend a population and national sovereignty that western powers are trying to again subdue.
If China has shown anything over the last five decades, it is the ability to evolve by diagnosing its problems, offering its own solutions and establishing rhythms adjusted to its own times. If the country didn’t accept pressure when it was weaker, it is even less likely to do so now, especially when those pressures come in many cases from societies and systems with a longer list of problems.
In Western societies we have been declining for years in terms of well-being; corruption is a rampant phenomenon, inequality is deepening, our governments are at the mercy of the markets, and democracy has become Plato’s cave: those who really hold power in the background are not those up for election. In order to recover a purer sense of democracy, major reforms are required that limit the power of big capital and make the people key actors once again. Only when that happens and politics actually begins to improve lives can we regain confidence in politics again. Instead of pointing fingers at others, now is the time to reset and carry out deep reforms.
These are the issues that should concern the political leaders of a West who, on the other hand, have still not yet apologized to the world for the serious aggressions carried out in the name of democracy in countries such as Iraq or Libya, where they destroyed infrastructures, took innocent lives and caused enormous suffering to people in actions that prostitute the very idea of democracy.
China has important shortcomings in many areas and much to improve in others, including democracy and freedoms, but its great capacity for government, as shown by the management of the coronavirus pandemic has been shown to be an unprecedented economic and social success.
2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the failure of Perestroika. Former Soviet leader Gorbachev recounted in his memoirs that his advisers often gave him long reports criticizing the reforms in China. On one occasion, fed up with that tone, he urged them to take a positive approach, detailing what was working and what could be copied.
Western democracies are currently determined to demonize China because they believe that by doing this they can better protect themselves. This “distraction” could turn back on them if their own structural problems continue to worsen, leading to the loss of democratic quality at the hands of oligarchies with no interest in the common good. On the contrary, the Chinese way, which draws equally on Western thought (since Marxism is no less Western in its roots than liberalism) and on its own philosophies, and which looks to find common ground, could end up taking the lead and even showing the way to the West.
(Xulio Ríos is director of the Observatory of Chinese Politics)