by MELTEM AKIN
There is a relationship between economic development and political trust in a country. This relationship occurs in a way of positive correlation in China. As the economic development in the country increases, so does the political trust in the state. While some argue that trust in institutions and the system decreases as the regime becomes authoritarian, this is not the case in China. Although the level of democracy was -7 in 2016, the level of political confidence in China is high and this is mainly due to the thriving economy. There are also various other reasons that affect this situation such as equality, education, age and gender. This paper will be based on this correlation between thriving economy and political trust in China with studying these various reasons.
Political trust has a significant importance in a country because it enables people to trust the political system, political regime, institutions and the government officials in their country. In addition, they show their trust in the state by ensuring that they support this system and organizations belong to the state (Chen and Xiang, 2020, 979). Trust in the state and its institutions are high in China but it’s not because of the level of democracy. Although the level of democracy is low, Chinese citizens have political confidence in the state, which is provided by the developing economy. As it can be understood from here, any recession in China’s economy may cause the political confidence of the citizens to be shaken. Choosing to use the economy rather than democracy to ensure the political confidence, China must always continue to develop its economy in order to keep this political confidence level high. Changes in the economy are not the only factors. The other factor is that the more people get educated, their awareness increases and this also can change the situation. As people learn about democracy, they may want to have it in their own country. But China has an authoritarian regime and the level of democracy is very low. I think, the most important factor that can change this is education. This situation, which will probably require decades and education-based people, will not happen immediately and quickly. However, as people become more educated and conscious, they can see the importance of democracy. One of the issues on the agenda was the decision taken by Zuckerberg, the owner of the Whatsapp application. This decision was about violation of people’s privacy. While discussing this decision, WeChat application used in China also started to be discussed. The fact that various applications such as Whatsapp are prohibited in China and they use an application of their own reveal shows the level of democracy again. I can understand that a country wants to use the product it has created and produced, but the prohibition of other practices does not fit into the understanding of democracy and democratic values.
China is upper middle-income country and according to the World Bank researches made in 2018, GDP per capita is 9.771 (current US dollars). Per capita income is high because China is the world’s largest exporter since 2010 and the largest trading nation since 2013. One must check these to understand why Chinese citizens have confidence in their country. Confidence in the government is not only high but also stable in China (Hutchison and Xu, 2001-2012, 178). State controls the media and education system to make confidence level stable in the country and as it controls these, the democracy level decreases in the country. Another issue must be checked is that the difference in China’s regions. In the west of China there are mountainous regions, poor people, immigrants and minorities, while in the east there are wetlands and rich people. Although the majority of the population lives in the east, people living in the west have certain problems. For instance, people who want to migrate from west to the east cannot receive free medical examination when they migrate to the east, and this situation causes inequality among the people. These inequalities lead to a decrease in the political trust of people living in the west and who want to migrate to the east. While they should be able to have free medical examination in the east like every citizen, their deprivation of these and similar rights causes them to question the state and the system. Thus, their trust in the state decreases. Therefore, China must not only develop its economy but also ensure equality within the country so that citizens’ trust in the state remains high.
Another factor that needs to be examined is whether people’s wishes are fulfilled or not. As the economy of China progresses, the wishes of the citizens in this direction become very suitable for development and increase. People can expect more development with the developing economy. This poses a risk to China because political confidence can be undermined if it fails to meet the citizens’ expectations. By choosing the economy instead of democracy, China is actually promising its citizens a continuous economic development. If people had gained their political trust with the level of democracy, people could have democratic expectations but I think, it would not be difficult to achieve this in a developing and democratizing world. However, choosing the economy over democracy puts China on a more difficult path. According to some, this rapid economic development of China is a sign that it will also go into a rapid collapse. If its economy begins to collapse as fast as it develops, the political confidence of the Chinese citizens may be eroded just as quickly, and this will not benefit China.
It is also one of the controversial issues whether political trust is individual or social. Certain characteristics of people may lead to a lack of political trust in the state, no matter how developed the economy is. For example, if I were a Chinese citizen, I would have wanted the state to prefer democracy over the economy, and from this personal view, I would have little confidence in the state, no matter how high my salary was because the economy could collapse quickly, but a carefully grounded democratic system is much more difficult to collapse. People who are subjected to injustice and inequality may likewise lack trust in the state. At the same time, people who miss the past or value culture more than the economy may not have as much trust in the state as other people. Another factor is people with a Communist perspective. Even if the state is run by the Communist Party, some people may feel uncomfortable because their economy is not based on a communist basis. I think that the older people are more likely to fall into this classification because people who have actually seen how the communist system functioned in the past can see the differences better between then and now, and this may lead to a decrease in their trust in the state.
Unlike other countries, China tends to respect the authoritarian regime in the country (Hutchison and Xu, 2001-2012, 183). I believe the main reason for this is the difficulties experienced in the past. With the adoption of the communist regime and the growth of Mao’s followers, many people in the country have experienced economic difficulties, and China is today retaining authority and promoting its economy by learning from its past mistakes. Not forgetting the difficulties they faced, Chinese citizens believe that the only way for the economy to develop is an authoritarian regime, and this is why their trust in the state is very high. They prioritize the economy more than democracy. At this point, I wish the Chinese citizens would turn their eyes to Europe. The economy can rise even when the level of democracy is high and it is not necessary to rely on an authoritarian regime. Of course, it is not easy to change this idea because the past, errors and values of each country are different, but even if they look at the inequalities within themselves, they can actually observe it. While foreign investments are mostly made in the east and the developing economy is in the east, people in the west are still farming and unequal in health. I think that even this difference within the country should be enough to question the political trust of the citizens.
Deng Xiaoping is one of the most important figures in China’s strength today. Between 1977 and 1997, although he never was formally the head of the party or the government, he was running the show behind the doors. He sought to restore party’s legitimacy by bringing in younger and educated officials into the party and economic reforms. The policy of reform and openness had brought market liberalization and foreign investment into the country and Deng Xiaoping also had rural reforms such as household responsibility system and township and village enterprises. These reforms had brought spectacular economic growth in the 1980s. His idea was “If people enrich themselves, they enrich the country.” His ideas were based on incrementalism instead of a grand strategy. Thanks to his open-door policy, China also achieved astonishing results in its external economic activities (John, 1995, 269). In addition to the developing economy, another issue that needs to be looked at and examined is the impact of the reform of opening up to the world on Chinese citizens. Attracting foreign investments to the country and opening up to the world has improved China’s economy, this is an undeniable fact but their opening to the world was not only on the economy. Chinese citizens have begun to witness the democracy levels of other countries of the world and have witnessed, even to some extent, systems and regimes in countries other than their own. This situation of opening up to the world enabled Chinese citizens to see freedoms in other countries, and the confidence of people in the state decreased. As long as China continues to open up to the world, new generations can continue to question with both this and education, and this may cause the political trust in the state to be shaken. There is a difference according to gender and age just as the state’s behavior towards people living in different parts of the state changes. Therefore, people’s trust in the state may change according to their gender or age. Increasing censorship in the media can cause both an increase and a decrease in people’s trust in the state. I think, this difference is due to questioning. If people rely on censored media without questioning, their trust in the state does not diminish, but if they begin to question the censored media, their political trust in the state tends to decrease.
China’s preference for the economy over democracy in order to gain political confidence requires it to keep economic development continuous. The latest development in this area is the world’s largest free trade bloc established in Asia. Following the 8-years meeting marathon, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership-RCEP was signed between 10 ASEAN countries and China, Australia, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand (John, 1995, 272). Asian countries have demonstrated that they prioritize economic development, leaving aside the wide-ranging and extensive political problems between them. The agreement is also a first for China; China, which has always preferred to make bilateral free trade agreements until today, has entered a trade block for the first time. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTP) under Obama was also influential in the signing of the RCEP. China filled the vacuum left by the USA. The USA now has two options with Biden’s election. These options are to join the RCEP or to join forces with EU countries by standing against RCEP. Which of these will be chosen will directly affect the Chinese economy. The main content of the RCEP agreement is the elimination of customs duties between member states. Thus, RCEP connects the economies of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Other shortcomings in RCEP are that it does not go into issues such as environmental protection, intellectual property rights, technology transfer or trade unions. However, in the TTP, which was signed with Asian countries under the leadership of the USA in 2016 – which the USA came out with the decision of Trump in 2017 – there were references to the environment and independent unions. In this respect, there are certain differences between RCEP and TTP.
To conclude, there is a positive correlation between thriving economy and political trust in China. There are various reasons behind this such as education, age, gender, citizens’ wishes and their tendency to trust in authoritative regime. China has to consider all these reasons to make people continue to have political trust in the political regime, system and government officials. It can be seen that with the new developments in the country they have ensured this. Frankly, I would prefer democracy over economic development but I also know that it is hard to choose one of them over another, while not living in that country and not being a citizen of that country. However, educated people in China may have tendencies to think like me and this may cause a decrease in political trust in the country.