How Chinese People Understand Democracy: A Political Psychology Perspective (中国人の民主主義観に関する政治心理学的研究)

尹 月

   “How do Chinese people understand democracy?” It is not surprising that many scholars have reflected on this issue. Given the enormous amount of research that has been carried out to examine Chinese democracy-related issues, it seems that there is not enough space to address this question. However, much of the existing research on democracy in China focuses solely on the role played by political elites in articulating and disseminating the concept of democracy, while popular perceptions of democracy have been relatively ignored. Moreover, most of the earlier literature on Chinese citizens’ perceptions and attitudes toward democracy and democratization do not pay sufficient attention to “variance in the structure of citizens’ democratic conceptualizations” (Canache, 2012: 1132), because a simple theoretical comparison between liberal democracy and guardianship discourse is limited. Third, none of the previous studies have examined the evolution of Chinese people’s perceptions of democracy during drastic political and social changes since the millennium. Therefore, it is necessary that students of Chinese politics continue researching and seeking to fill the existing knowledge gaps with the goal of contributing to our understanding of how democracy is perceived by the Chinese public.


     This study has six chapters. Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive review of the theoretical and empirical literature on Chinese perceptions of democracy, the factors that contribute to forming these perceptions, and the influences of these perceptions on political attitudes and participation in China. In Chapter 2, specific differences in Chinese citizens’ perceptions of democracy are explored. Chapter 3 examines the effects of the political system and political culture on preferences for different types of democracy. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the ways perceptions of democracy influence perceptions of and engagement with politics. Chapter 6 is the conclusion. The study used qualitative and quantitative methods to analyze the responses to relevant items from three waves of the Asian Barometer Survey (the ABS I-III). This is the first survey conducted in Asia to measure opinions of political factors, such as democracy, institutional trust, and political values.

     Starting in Chapter 2, the study critically examines the Chinese public’s understanding of democracy. To that end, the study analyzed the responses to the following open-ended question in the ABS I-III: “What does democracy mean to you?” The responses were organized into the following nine categories: (1) rule by the people and social equality; (2) for the people and good government; (3) a good life; (4) political rights, institutions, and processes; (5) the rule of law and social justice; (6) freedom and liberty; (7) describing democracy in general positive/negative terms; (8) other; and (9) don’t know/no answer (DK/NA). The first three categories were combined to indicate a “substantive and communist perception of democracy,” and categories 4 through 6 were grouped together to indicate “procedural and liberal democracy.” The classification of democratic perceptions was an important foundation of this study.

     Then, the categorized responses to the question “What does democracy mean to you?” were used to address the following four crucial questions.

(1)   Does the high percentage of “DK/NA” reflect political fear?

(2)   Do the data support the previous studies on Chinese people’s perceptions of democracy as perceived through the substantive and guardianship discourse?

(3)   What is the pattern of responses to “What does democracy mean to you?” Specifically, do the respondents simultaneously hold multiple conflicting ideas about democracy?

(4)   How, if at all, do the responses reflect an influence of China’s government on its public?

     The analysis found that the respondents tended to perceive democracy through the substantive and communist interpretation, although they simultaneously preferred the principles of liberal democracy. The findings revealed a limitation of using two models of democracy (“substantive” versus “procedural”) to investigate Chinese opinions of democracy, because their procedural perception of democracy might comprise multiple meanings. This study argued that an endorsement of “socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics,” which emphasizes the direct political participation of “the masses,” also should be taken into account as an independent aspect of public perceptions of democracy in China. This is so because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has intentionally packaged and indoctrinated the people with a communist discourse as an alternative style of democracy alleged to be superior to its liberal counterpart.

     Chapter 3 aims to answer a fundamental question using ABS I-III data: Why do respondents adhere to one particular perception of democracy rather than another? Assuming the CCP is responsible for most of the public perceptions of democracy (Chapters 1 and 2), the study hypothesized that people with (1) relatively stronger commitment to the Chinese political culture recreated and maintained by the CCP (political culture factor), (2) more frequent exposure to official mass media (media exposure factor), and (3) political socialization developed during relatively totalitarian and closed historical periods (cohort factor) were more likely than their less committed, exposed, and socialized counterparts to perceive democracy in substantive as opposed to liberal terms. This chapter profiles respondents who defined democracy with liberal or procedural statements, such as “political rights, institutions, and processes”; “rule of law and social justice”; and “freedom and liberty” or with substantive and communist statements, such as “rule by the people and social equality”; “for the people and good government”; and “a good life.” Correlation and regression analyses found strong significant evidence to support the political cultural factor and weak support of the media exposure and cohort factors. Moreover, perceptions of democracy among the Chinese are closely associated with individual demographic characteristics, such as educational attainment, residency belonging, and self-assessed social status. The examination of the demographic and social predictors of Chinese people’s understanding of democracy revealed sharp contrasts between those who appreciated procedural and those who endorsed substantive definitions in terms of socio-demographic and socio-political characteristics.

     The attitudinal and behavioral consequences of Chinese perceptions of democracy are presented in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 concerns whether and the extent to which a procedural perception of democracy strengthened the sense of commitment to democracy. Based on responses to items in the ABS I-III, the chapter explores support for and commitment to democracy in China. Multivariate regression analyses further examined the effects of understandings of democracy on commitment to democracy. Two main findings resulted from these analyses. First, Chinese public support of democracy was not as solid as it appeared. Specifically, those who perceived and valued the intrinsic importance of democratic principles constituted a minority of the sample, whereas a large majority seemed to focus on democracy’s instrumental functions for improving standards of living. Second, different perceptions of democracy have different influences on commitment to and evaluations of current situations of democracy in China. Specifically, respondents who embraced liberal and procedural perceptions of democracy tended to be committed to Western-style democracy and to be relatively less satisfied with the state of democratization in China.

     Chapter 5 continues to explore the influences of perceptions of democracy on political attitudes and behaviors. First, based on data drawn from ABS III, the relationship of perceptions of democracy and political support for the government in China is examined. The results indicate that positive perceptions of procedural democracy did not necessarily relate to withdrawal of support from the current regime or relatively less satisfaction with the government’s performances, which might help to explain the popular support of China’s authoritarian regime. Then, the chapter addresses whether and the extent to which perceptions of democracy influenced participation in elections and non-institutional political activities. It was found that in general, commitment to liberal democracy encouraged frequent political participation. The findings regarding a causal relationship between public perceptions of democracy and the types and intensity of political participation have direct implications for democratization in China. Following Chapter 5, the conclusion (Chapter 6) is a summary of the study’s key empirical results about the contents, sources, and consequences of Chinese perceptions of democracy, and it presents crucial political implications in terms of prospects for democratization in China.