Popular democratic perception matters for political trust in authoritarian regimes

Date01 November 2019
Published date01 November 2019
Subject MatterArticles
784748POL0010.1177/0263395718784748PoliticsZhai et al.
2019, Vol. 39(4) 411 –429
Popular democratic perception
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
matters for political trust in
DOI: 10.1177/0263395718784748
authoritarian regimes
Yida Zhai
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, P.R. China
Governmental performance is important for maintaining the public’s political trust. This article
examines the moderating role of the popular perceptions of democracy on the effect of governmental
performance on political trust in authoritarian regimes by studying the case of China. The popular
perceptions of democracy affect the evaluations of governmental performance, and the effects of
governmental performance on political trust are contingent on particular democratic perception.
The results reveal that a better government’s social performance particularly increases political
trust among people who view elections as an essential component of democracy. However, such
a positive effect is significantly reduced among people who consider political rights to be a key
component of democracy. Regardless of how Chinese people view democracy, government’s
poor political performance reduces people’s political trust in the government. However, the
negative effect is most significant among people who prioritize political rights in their perception
of democracy. For those who view economic security as an essential component of democracy,
the negative effect of the government’s poor political performance on political trust is substantially
China, democratization, governmental performance, political trust, popular perception of
Received: 21st August 2017; Revised version received: 19th February 2018; Accepted: 1st May 2018
Theories of political development underline two patterns of determinants in democratiza-
tion. First, governmental performance correlates with regime support (Mishler and Rose,
2002; Tang, 2005; Zhong, 2014). When the masses are dissatisfied with their govern-
ment’s performance, political trust will decline. Second, the public’s support for democ-
racy will threaten the rule of authoritarian regimes and drive political development (Chu
Corresponding author:
Yida Zhai, School of International and Public Affairs, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Xin Jian Hall, 1954
Huashan Road, Shanghai 200030, P.R. China.
Email: yidazhai@yahoo.com

Politics 39(4)
et al., 2008a; Fuchs and Roller, 2006; Qi and Shin, 2011). Many countries witnessed
democratic transitions in the past few decades after their government’s performance
worsened or the public’s demand for democracy rose. Despite its authoritarian regime,
China has achieved great economic success and its political system remains resilient.
Ordinary Chinese people appear to have an ambiguous mentality regarding democracy –
while they have a high level of political trust in the current authoritarian government, they
are still supportive of democracy (Lu and Shi, 2015; Shi, 2008; Zhai, 2018b). What is the
prospect for democracy in an authoritarian regime like China? The case of China is of
great relevance for research on democratization.
The Chinese government enjoys considerable political trust from the public (Li, 2004;
Shi, 2008, 2014; Tang, 2016). Sustaining economic growth over the past three decades
has allowed the authoritarian regime to survive despite the domestic and international
pressure of democratization. The high level of political trust is attributed to government
policy performance. A number of studies demonstrate that the favourable evaluation of
governmental performance is the major reason for high levels of political trust in the cur-
rent regime (Tang, 2005; Yang and Tang, 2010; Zhong, 2014). Indeed, China’s economic
growth has improved the ordinary Chinese standard of living. When comparing current
Chinese conditions with that of several decades previously, the Chinese government can
take credit for the economic achievements. However, governmental performance is not
merely restricted to the economic domain. The government’s social and political perfor-
mance is an equally important factor affecting the public’s political trust (Bratton and
Mattes, 2001; Craig, 1996; Zhai, 2016). The effects of outputs of political systems on
political trust vary with different sorts of performance. Evaluation of governmental per-
formance changes across different policy domains. The government may perform fairly
well regarding the economy, but fails to protect citizens’ human rights. If the majority of
the Chinese treat human rights as the most important issue, they would not hold positive
sentiments or trust in the current government. Therefore, concerns for economic affairs
are not the whole story. Policy success or failure in other fields affects political trust
The public’s support for democracy is another factor in the democratization process.
Democracy has established its legitimacy as a political system since the 20th century.
Today, there is no country that publicly opposes democracy but autocratic countries try to
manipulate the concept of democracy for serving undemocratic rules. Existing literature
has shown that the Chinese public has a high level of support for democracy (Shi, 2000;
Shi and Lu, 2010; Zhai, 2018a). Yet, pro-democratic attitudes have not resulted in a wide-
spread public struggle for democracy or democratic movements. Researchers find that the
Chinese people’s democratic perceptions are not necessarily consistent with the liberal
democracy discourse (Lu and Shi, 2015; Shi and Lu, 2010; Zhai, 2017). These studies
largely contributed to the advances in exploring popular perceptions of democracy in an
authoritarian system. We know that the word ‘democracy’ in China has different connota-
tions from the Western conceptualization of democracy.
This study aims to take this line of research further and examine how citizens’ views
of democracy may influence the relationship between their evaluation of government
policy performance and political trust. Popular democratic perceptions are important for
regime support and its stability (Baviskar and Malone, 2004; Zhai, 2018a). This article
investigates variations in the levels of government performance perception and political
trust in China as different patterns in popular democratic perceptions intervene in their
relationships. The findings show that popular democratic perception affects the masses’

Zhai et al.
evaluation of government’s social performance. Moreover, the effects of government’s
social and political performance on political trust are moderated by popular democratic
perceptions. This study also shed light on the Achilles’ heel of political trust in the current
Chinese regime. Regardless of how Chinese people view democracy, the government’s
political performance is negatively associated with their political trust. Abuse of power
worsens the masses’ evaluation of governmental performance and has become the subject
of discontent throughout the Chinese population.
Popular perceptions of democracy
Democracy is a contested concept, and people in different cultures or countries view it in
different ways (Bratton et al., 2005; Chu et al., 2008b; Fuchs and Roller, 2006; Miller
et al., 1997; Shin, 2012). The concepts of democracy are classified differently, according
to distinct standards such as constitutional arrangements, procedural perspective, liberty
and rights, and outcomes of democracy. This study will employ a theoretical framework
of procedural and substantive conceptions of democracy in classifying conceptions of
democracy and apply the two categories to an empirical survey in China. The method that
divides the multiple conception of democracy into procedural and substantive categories
has been widely used in previous theoretical discussions of democracy and in empirical
investigations of popular democratic conceptions (Dalton et al., 2007; Huang et al., 2013;
Kollmeyer, 2010; Lu, 2013; Lu and Shi, 2015). Researchers also use terms including
‘liberal democracy’, ‘understanding democracy as means’, or ‘intrinsic value of democ-
racy’ to refer to the procedural perceptions of democracy, and terms including ‘the guardi-
anship discourse on democracy’, ‘understanding democracy as ends’, or ‘instrumental
value of democracy’ to refer to the substantive perceptions of democracy.
People who hold procedural perceptions of democracy, place an emphasis on elections
that falls under a minimalist concept of democracy (Schumpeter, 1976 [1942]). The mini-
malist concept of democracy contends that democracy is equal to holding periodic com-
petitive elections. In Schumpeter’s definition of democracy, the active participation of
ordinary citizens in deciding political issues is secondary to the selection of representa-
tives. Democracy is a political process of ‘a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’
(Schumpeter, 1976 [1942]: 250). In other words, ‘democracy does not mean and cannot
mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the term ‘people’ and ‘rule’.
Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the
men who are to rule them’ (Schumpeter, 1976 [1942]: 284–285). A democratic system
involves open, periodic, electoral competition with...

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