There’s been much talk of late about democracy’s imminent demise. China’s continued rise, the emergence of strongmen (and would-be strongmen) in democracies like India, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, and the growth of illiberal populism in various forms sometimes seems to suggest democracy is on the wane. But much of the fear for democracy’s future centers on hardening international attitudes toward Donald Trump and the United States.
Yet a closer look at these attitudes across countries reveal some surprising results. Compare public sentiment in Japan and China. Trump recently returned from a visit to Japan, where he enjoyed a lavish welcome complete with red carpets, ringside seats at a sumo tournament, and the honor of becoming the first head of state to meet Japan’s new emperor.
The US and China, meanwhile, are now engaged in a full-blown trade war. US tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products take effect this month, and China has retaliated by halting purchases of soybeans from American farmers. In response to the American crackdown on Chinese telecom giant Huawei, China is threatening to cut the US from its exports of rare earth minerals, which are critical to the manufacture of technology products.
Japan is a representative democracy and treaty ally of the United States. China, by contrast, remains a police state. President Xi Jinping continues to consolidate power within the Chinese Communist Party, which enjoys a monopoly hold on domestic political power. The party’s economic reforms have helped to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty even as it denies them the rights and freedoms considered sacrosanct in Japan and other democracies.
Which country’s people have the higher opinion of the United States and its political system?
A recent international survey commissioned by the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF), a nonprofit organization I serve as board president, found that three times as many Japanese respondents expressed a negative opinion of “American ideas of democracy” than have a positive one. More Japanese said they would like to see their “system of government become less like that of the United States” over the next 20 years than said the opposite.
But Chinese respondents were about three times as likely to: (1) want their government to become more like that of the US, (2) to have a positive view of the US, and (3) to have favorable opinion of American ideas of democracy. When asked to rank 15 specific countries on which had the best form of government, the US came second to China itself. The US form of government was nearly twice as popular as that of the UK and nearly three times as popular as that of France or Russia.
What does all this mean? Public opinion toward a particular foreign country aren’t directly and predictably influenced by that country’s foreign policy.
The Japanese government might be grateful for US security guarantees even as voters on the Japanese island of Okinawa elect a mayor who promised to expel an American military base from the island. The Chinese president might impose retaliatory tariffs on American imports even as the Chinese public yearns for the sorts of political freedoms permitted in the United States.
This is something the Chinese government seems to understand. In fact, it has been making a concerted effort to sensitize the Chinese public for continuous economic confrontation. China’s main movie channel, CCTV-6, has begun showing films about resisting what China sees as American aggression, including several about the Korean War.
A state-run publishing house recently printed a collection of speeches Mao made in 1938 in response to a Japanese invasion which China repelled after protracted conflict. The survey results suggest these efforts may change attitudes toward the United States, at least at the margins, but they’re not likely to satisfy public demand for greater freedom and public accountability at home.
Liberal democracy faces its share of challenges, but EGF’s report indicates that people in the countries surveyed tend to differentiate between US government policies and the principles of individual rights and freedoms that American democracy provides. This is particularly true in Asia.
The institutions which support and the alliances which protect democracy might be getting a healthy re-evaluation in Japan (and elsewhere). And people may see their lot improving under a dramatically different political model in China (and elsewhere). But the basic human desire for individual freedom, which is central to the promise of liberal democracy, lives on in different forms within different political cultures.
The world’s strongmen are unlikely to change that.
Ian Bremmer is the founder and board president of the Eurasia Group Foundation and author of “Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.”