Yinxian Zhang on Chinese Citizens’ Changing Views on Democracy

As support for the CCP endures into a new century, Chinese citizens call into question the value of democracy details former China Public Policy Postdoctoral Fellow Yinxian Zhang. 

Published on December 8, 2021 

Written by Yinxian Zhang, Assistant Professor at Queens College in the City University of New York, former China Public Policy Postdoctoral Fellow 

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turns 100, domestic support for the Chinese state has grown among many citizens. At the same time, anti-U.S. sentiment has become more prevalent – particularly online. Today, people are worried about the possibility of a U.S.-China cold war and the broader resurgence of authoritarianism. In fact, in past decades, close people-to-people ties between the U.S. and China have changed many aspects of the two societies and acted as a ballast of sorts and stabilized the relationship between both countries. Yet the bilateral relationship seems more uncertain now than ever.

Research has shown that pro-government sentiment was not mainstream in unofficial Chinese discourse during the reform era. On the contrary, after the death of Mao, liberalism and a belief in science and democracy came to dominate popular discourse amidst the collective trauma of previous political movements, including the Cultural Revolution. This pro-democracy tendency echoed the global zeitgeist of what Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington termed the “third wave” of democratization. It was further fueled by popular dissatisfaction with domestic problems, such as government corruption, police brutality, and air pollution. While nationalism and anti-democracy voices have never vanished, for a long time they were sidelined and discredited in the online sphere, the primary platform of spontaneous political discussions in China.

In this context, many Chinese “influencers” had long deemed America the lighthouse of democracy that could serve as an example to the Chinese people. Today, American audiences may be surprised to learn how much the Chinese public, especially netizens, fanatically admired the U.S. in the 2000s and early 2010s.

For many Chinese, learning about the political realities abroad has led to a reevaluation of the political realities at home. 

So, how did we end up here? How did support for liberalism give way to support for authoritarianism? While propaganda and censorship have played an important role, they alone cannot fully explain the dramatic change in public opinion in recent years. After all, people’s desire for democracy had survived and thrived in China since the late Qing Dynasty, despite persistent political control. Even at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when China tightened state control, the world still witnessed unprecedented public outcries and firm demands for free speech and transparency. Since then, however, while state control has largely remained constant, the Chinese public has switched to enthusiastically supporting their government as they learned more about pandemic conditions outside of China.

In fact, the shift in Chinese public opinion during COVID-19 mirrors the long-term change in Chinese popular discourse in the 2010s. Research points to the Chinese people’s disillusions with the West, especially the U.S., as a major reason behind this trend. Chinese people used to have overly rosy view of America. Yet, as internet usage has increased, so too has the Chinese public’s exposure to America’s far-from-perfect realities. This has sowed doubt and disappointment as people’s images of the lighthouse of democracy have been challenged by issues such as the Jeffery Epstein scandal, the Capitol attack, COVID-19 response failures, and rising anti-AAPI hate crimes.

For many Chinese, learning about the political realities abroad has led to a reevaluation of the political realities at home. The flaws and contradictions of the government have now become more tolerable in their eyes. They think, “If other countries, especially those that were supposed to be much better than my country, are in fact experiencing crises, delivering worse governance, and showing me distrust and hostility, why would I be so demanding about my own government?”

This popular perception helps strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese regime. While this may not necessarily guarantee the regime’s long-term security – it puts tremendous pressure on the government to keep outperforming its Western counterparts – it effectively undermines people’s confidence in liberal democracy. As long as the Chinese public perceives the West as inefficient yet hostile, domestic support for the CCP will continue to rise.

In this context, calling the pandemic the “China virus,” arresting Chinese scientists, and fostering widespread distrust and hostility toward the Chinese and Chinese-American population does everything but rebuild the Chinese people’s faith in liberal democracy. Hence, moving forward, the CCP will likely benefit from bipartisan anti-China rhetoric and Cold War nostalgia. On the contrary, it will be more difficult to solidify popular support for authoritarianism if liberal democracy is redeemed and can show the world what it is better at: openness, transparency, and respecting and protecting citizens, no matter who they are. As the world becomes ever more connected, how liberal values manifest across the globe – or don’t – in the coming years will be one of the defining factors in how public opinion shifts in China.