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Do Asians Understand
Democracy? Findings from Surveys
Tianjian Shi
Department of Political Science
Duke University
Debates About Asian Values
• Background
– Collapse of the former Soviet Union
– End of History by Fukuyama
– Interview of Minister Mentor Lee Kew Yue of
Singapore by editor of Foreign Affairs Fareed
Zakaria. In the Interview, Mr. Lee pointed out
that Asian Culture has significant impact on
regime type and political development in Asia
What are the Issues?
• Is political culture in Asia really different from
Western political culture?
• If the answer is yes, is Asian culture an obstacle
to democratic development, as suggested by Mr.
Lee?
• Even if Asian culture differs from that of the
Western culture, will economic development in
Asian societies change such culture?
Problems in Asian Value Debate
• The arguments of both sides rely on
theoretical deduction.
– Modernization or structural theory.
– Institutional theory; cultures are shaped by
efforts of regime.
• Common problem, no empirical support
– Data become available for the first time in
history -- East Asian Barometer Survey.
Do People in Asia Want
Democracy?
Traditional Measures
• Which of the following statements comes
closest to your own opinion?
– Democracy is always preferable to any other kind of
government.
– Under some circumstances, an authoritarian
government can be preferable over a democratic one.
– It does not matter whether we have a democratic or a
non-democratic regime.
Figure I. Commitment to Democracy
90
82.6
80
74
67.2
70
62
61
63.6
58.8
57.2
60
53.8
49.4
50
40.4
40.2
40
30
20
10
0
African
South Asia
Countries
Latin
America
East Asia
Thailand
Japan
Philippines Mongolia
Mainland
China
South
Korea
Taiwan
Sources: Afrobarometer, Latino Barometer, Southeast Asia Barometer and Asian Baremeter
Hong Kong
Findings
• The Commitment to democracy for people in
Asia is not less than for people in other
continents.
• Demands for democracy in China is high, but
it is not the highest of Asian societies.
• Demands for democracy in Thailand is of is
highest among all Asian Societies.
Issues of Democratic Suitability
• While people may have a desire for
democracy, they may also think that
democracy is not suitable for their country.
Even though people believe that
democracy is inherently good, it may not
be suitable for their own countries due to
structural or institutional reasons.
Democratic Suitability
• Here is a scale of 1 to 10 measuring the
extent to which people think democracy is
suitable for their country. If “1” means that
democracy is completely unsuitable for
[name of country] today and “10” means
that it is completely suitable, where would
you place your country today?
Figure II. How Suitable is Democracy for your Society?
9.00
8.46
8.02
7.61
8.00
7.35
7.21
6.86
7.00
6.67
6.00
5.00
4.00
3.00
2.00
1.00
0.00
Mainland
China
Mongolia
Japan
Philippines
Hong Kong
South Korea
Taiwan
Findings II
• The majority of people in Asia believe that
democracy is suitable for their country.
• In Asia, people in China think democracy is most
suitable for their country.
• People in Taiwan think democracy is most
unsuitable for their society!
• Countries in communist and former communist
societies think democracy is most suitable.
Democratic Supply
• There is another side of the story –
democratic supply.
• 1 means complete dictatorship and 10
means complete democracy, where would
you place our country under the present
government?
Figure III. Democratic Supplies in Different Societies
8.00
7.33
7.22
7.02
6.69
7.00
6.63
6.51
6.00
5.23
5.00
4.00
3.00
2.00
1.00
0.00
Taiwan
Mainland China
Japan
Philippines
Mongolia
South Korea
Hong Kong
Findings III
• The popular evaluation of democratic supply
in China ranks third in Asia.
• The popular evaluation of democratic supply
given by people in China is higher than what
is given by people in Japan.
Gap between Democracy
Supply and Demand
• The most important factor for democratic
transition in a society is not how much
democracy people in that society want but
the gap between supply and demand.
e 3. Gaps between Democratic Supply and Demands in Aisa
1.39
Mongolia
1.24
0.66
0.59
0.53
0.35
Gaps
-0.66
Mainland
China
Philippines
Japan
Thailand
South Korea
Taiwan
Puzzle
• The majority of people believe democracy is suitable
for China.
• But at the same time, the majority believes that the
level of democracy in China at the current stage of
development is pretty high.
• The gap between democratic supply and demand in
the minds of people in Mainland China is smaller than
the gap in Mongolia and in Hong Kong.
• In Taiwan, we found a reverse relationship. People
believe the region is too democratic.
Rational Choice Explanation
• For rational choice scholars, the puzzle can be
explained by the incentive structure deduced
from the behavior logic of utility maximization.
• Since the regime in China does not hesitate to
suppress unauthorized expression, people dare
not tell interviewers their true feelings in the
survey for fear of possible political persecution.
• Thus, the question asking people to evaluate the
level of democracy in their own country becomes
a proxy of political fear.
Table 1. Perception of Performance of the Current Government As Compared to that of 1979
Better
No Change
Worse
B-W
Civil Liberty
Freedom of Expression
85.0 (2,174)
12.1 (310)
2.9 (73)
82.1
Freedom of Residence
82.5 (2,118)
14 (358)
3.6 (91)
78.9
Freedom of Religion
75.7 (1,569)
20.4 (422)
3.9 (80)
71.8
Freedom of Association
74.2 (1,435)
21 (406)
4.8 (93)
69.4
Political Rights
Personal Political Rights
69.3 (1,664)
24
(576)
6.7 (162)
62.6
Independence of the Legal System
61.8
(988)
21.1 (337)
17.1 (273)
44.7
Equal Treatment by the Government
60.5 (1,489)
23.3 (574)
16.2 (398)
44.3
Influence on Government Policy
39.0
(766)
47.1 (926)
13.8 (272)
25.2
Economic Development
96.6 (2,804)
1.6 (47)
1.8
(52)
86.3
Inequality
21.2
(600)
4.1 (115)
74.7 (2,109)
-53.5
Corruption
12.4
(319)
4.4 (113)
83.2 (2,138)
-70.8
45.3 (1,293)
6.1 (175)
48.5 (1383)
-3.2
Economic Performance
Social Order
Public Security
Source: 2002 Mainland China Survey
Note: Entries are Percentage. Entries in parentheses are Ns. Missing values are excluded.
An Alternative Explanation
• An alternative interpretation for the puzzle of why people
in mainland China gave a high evaluation of the level of
democratic supply and demand in their own country is
that their preferences, i.e., understanding of democracy,
are different from that of people in other societies.
• In other words, people in China also want democracy but
the democracy in their mind is a different democracy
from that which is in our minds.
• Understanding the reason behind the puzzle is critically
important for different interpretations, which have
different implications for the future political development
in Asia.
Detachment from Authoritarian
Rule
• As you know, there are some people in our country who
would like to change the way by which our country is
governed. We would like to know what you think of their
views. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree,
somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with each of
the following statements?
– We should get rid of a parliament and elections, and have a strong leader make
decisions.
– No opposition party should be allowed to compete for power.
– The military should come in to govern the country.
– We should get rid of parliament and elections and have the experts make
decisions.
Table 1. Commitment to Democracy and Detachment from Authoritarianism
Countries/Regions
Thailand
Japan
Philippines
Mongolia
Mainland China
South Korea
Taiwan
Hong Kong
CTD
82.6
67.2
63.6
57.2
53.8
49.4
40.4
40.2
DFA
43.1
54.3
35.6
36.9
7.5
65.1
50.0
49.4
CTD-DFA
39.5
12.9
28
20.3
46.3
-15.7
-9.6
-9.2
Correlation
0.103
0.233
0.100
0.312
0.092
0.184
0.177
0.207
Two Definitions of Democracy
• Procedural democracy
• Substantive democracy
– The nature of the
relationship between
individuals and state is
one of exchange.
– Election is the only
source of legitimacy.
– Different interests
compete with each other
and a government
makes decisions
according to the
procedural justice.
– The nature of the
relationship between
individuals and state a
hierarchical one.
– Legitimacy comes from the
substance of its policy.
– Leaders need to constantly
prove themselves to their
people.
– Policy is evaluated by their
substance rather than
procedure.
Table 2 Meaning of Democracy for Respondents in China and Taiwan
Mainland China
To you, what does democracy mean?
Percent
N
Taiwan
Percent
N
Freedom
22.9
739
48.6
687
Soliciting People's Opinions when Making Decisions
17.1
544
5.7
81
Joint Decision Making
16.9
538
6.8
96
7.2
229
7.8
111
Listen to People's Opinions when Making Decisions
13.5
429
13.4
190
Elections and Participation in the Decision Making Process
11.6
371
10.4
147
6.3
200
4
56
42.1
1340
17
241
Freedom and/or Equality
Parental Care
Government for the People
Procedures, Obligations, or Rights
Rights
Don't Know
Source: 2002 Asian Barometer Study
Note: Total exceeds 100 percent due to multiple answers being allowed for each respondent
Conclusion
• Yes, people in Asia also want democracy.
• However, the Asian understanding of
democracy is different from our
understanding.
• The regime in Asian countries have a high
capacity to manipulate its people by
redefining democracy to deprive it of our
understood connotations.
Conclusion-Continued
• Political Implication:
– Chinese political culture makes people in China trust
the government more than how people in other
societies would.
– Chinese political culture makes the threshold for
peoples’ engagement in unconventional political acts
higher.
– Chinese political culture makes people understand
democracy in a different way, and this gives the
regime much manipulating space.
• Altogether, Chinese political culture makes a
bottom to up democratic transition more difficult.
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