Yinxian Zhang, August 2020
In light of the increasingly aggressive policies and rhetoric of the Chinese government, many came to believe that China may pose a severe threat to democracy and the international order. However, less attention has been paid to Chinese popular attitudes toward democracy and authoritarianism. How does the Chinese public think of democracy in the changing domestic and international environment?
This paper uses a novel data set of Chinese social media posts generated between 2009 and 2017 and investigates the changes in popular attitudes toward democracy in the past decade. Results show that online discussion around democracy has decreased and voices questioning democracy have become pronounced since 2013. While tightened state control is a critical factor shaping popular attitudes, this paper demonstrates that people’s increasing exposure to two types of foreign information has also played into this trend. These information lead to a perception of dissatisfying performance of other countries and an awareness of racial attitudes of the West. Lastly, increasing doubts about democracy are not necessarily translated into a strong authoritarian legitimacy. Instead, online discussion presents a sense of ambivalence toward the two models, and the Chinese regime has continued to face a predicament of legitimacy.