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The Alliance of Democracy Foundation and Its Survey Findings in China and Taiwan|Austin Wang, Fang-Yu Chen, Yao-Yuan Yeh, Charles K.S. Wu

The Alliance of Democracy Foundation held a summit in Copenhagen this week. President Tsai Ing-wen was invited to participate in the summit remotely. In her speech, although Tsai did not allude to China, she suggested that it could spread authoritarian values worldwide through the pandemic and controlling natural resources. The former chairman of Demosistō, Nathan Law, was also invited. Unsurprisingly, China immediately protested his participation, calling it an attempt by foreign forces and separatists to promote independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong. China even blasted the democracy proposed in the summit as disingenuous and inferior to the Chinese version.

From February to April, the foundation conducted several polls in 53 countries, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. Each poll was representative and included at least 1000 respondents. One question asked if the person is supportive of the democracy summit. 53% of the public in Taiwan was supportive; only 6% was not. Similarly, 56% backed the summit, while 12% objected to it. In other words, the participation for both Tsai and Law had majority support. The results are identical in another question of joining the new D-10 group of 10 leading democracies.

In comparison, the results are intriguing when the question was asked in China: 44% of citizens in China opposed the summit, second to Russia’s 50%. However, another 24% of the public in China were supportive of the summit, a sizable segment of the public (around one-fourth). Meanwhile, 32% of the citizens chose not to reveal their attitudes on this question. Taken together, it is difficult for us to ascertain public sentiment in China toward the Alliance of Democracy.

The inconclusiveness is telling when compared to results from other questions. In the same survey, up to 93% of citizens in China were satisfied with government performance in curbing the pandemic. Another 71% of the public considered China to be a democratic country. The results from these questions are in line with the Chinese government’s position. Public sentiment toward this new democracy alliance, however, is a glaring exception.

The Public’s desire for democracy in both Hong Kong and Taiwan has lots to do with the ideas proposed by Ronald Inglehart, a famed professor at the University of Michigan and a giant figure in political science. Inglehart developed a theory of post-materialism based on cross-national public opinion polls that lasted over five decades and spanned across over 100 countries. The theory stresses that one’s economic condition during childhood has a significant impact on one’s ideology when coming of age. A person whose childhood is associated with hunger, poverty, or conflict will lead them to favor material desires. On the other hand, an affluent childhood will lead one to favor values of post-materialist values, such as self-realization. For young citizens in Hong Kong and Taiwan, this theory is persuasive as most have not experienced economic hardship during childhood, prompting them to favor democratic values that lead one to express oneself freely. Consequently, we have recently witnessed that values such as marriage equality, human rights, and environmentalism have come to the fore. Social movement and student protests have also become more common methods of expressing public opinion.

In fact, this trend has gradually appeared in China and captured the attention of Xi. In his speech during the eighteenth national congress, Xi has mentioned that China’s issues have changed from the unequal distribution of development and resources to demands for improving quality of life. The new goal will target citizens’ spiritual life and to achieve it would allow the public to develop and express themselves to satisfy their spiritual needs freely. Unfortunately, what China is striving for is more control of culture and freedom of speech, including bans on comic books, online games, and censorship of animations. The public is even prohibited from criticizing the New Year gala. These restrictions will only undermine citizens’ goal for improving quality of life and will only sow the seeds of dissent.

A workaround for the CCP is to redefine democracy to promote a new concept of developmental human rights and attempt to control the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Council. As stated above, more than 70% of citizens in China consider China as a democratic country, which is a grave misunderstanding to equalize economic development or government efficiency and democratization. To put it bluntly, most citizens in China have not realized that democracy should include guarantee rights for political participation, comply with public opinion to craft public policy, and ensure fundamental freedoms such as human rights.

China’s strategies, such as emphasizing discourse power and limiting the spread of information, might pay off in the short term. However, it is unclear if these could stop the global trends of post-materialism. Moreover, would citizens in China continue to mindlessly follow the party’s leadership if China’s economic development slow down in lieu of freedom and democracy? In other words, it is unclear if the CCP’s current Carrot and Stick strategy could continue to survive and withstand the tide of democratization when the “carrot” ceases to exist. The survey this time allows us to see the budding of democracy. In reality, there is now a wave of awakening among Western countries to previous tolerant attitudes of China’s autocratic regime. As China continues to flex its muscle and disparages Western countries, it will be interesting to see how Western countries will respond to the spread of authoritarianism by China.

(Austin Wang (austin.wang@unlv.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Twitter: @wearytolove

Fang-Yu Chen (chenfan6@msu.edu) is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, MOST, Taiwan. Twitter: @FangYu_80168

Yao-Yuan Yeh (yehy@stthom.edu) is Associate Professor of International Studies and Chair of the Department of International Studies and Modern Languages at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Twitter: @yeh2sctw

Charles K.S. Wu (wu721@purdue.edu) is PhD candidate of Political Science at Purdue University. Twitter: @kuanshengtwn)

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