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2022 Democracy Perception Index: How to read the survey of 52 - or 53 - countries

Ninety-one percent of Chinese believe democracy is important and 83 percent feel that their country is democratic. The corresponding India figures are 82 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

June 04, 2022 / 09:09 AM IST
According to the 2022 Democracy Perception Index, the country which perceives itself as the most democratically contented in the world is—China!

According to the 2022 Democracy Perception Index, the country which perceives itself as the most democratically contented in the world is—China!


A few days ago, the Berlin-based consumer insights firm Latana, in association with the Copenhagen-based non-profit organization Alliance of Democracies Foundation (ADF), released its 2022 Democracy Perception Index (DPI). ADF’s chairman is Anders Fogh Rasmussen, formerly NATO chief and prime minister of Denmark.

While I am sceptical of these global indices (as I wrote some months ago), the DPI is different from others like the Global Press Freedom Index or Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. It does not rely on the opinions of a few hand-picked experts to rank countries on complex issues.

The DPI is developed by speaking to common citizens. For its latest study, Latana got responses from nearly 53,000 people from 52 countries (or 53, as parts of its report say). It claims that nationally representative results were calculated based on the official distribution of age, gender, and education for each country’s population, sourced from the most recent and available data.

Some of the numbers that the study has thrown up are surprising and absolutely counter-intuitive.

The biggest surprise is that the country which perceives itself as the most democratically contented in the world is—China!

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A very important criterion here is the “perceived democracy deficit”— the difference between how important people say democracy is and how democratic they think their country is. The larger the deficit, the more governments are failing to live up to the democratic expectations of their citizens. A huge 91 percent of Chinese believe democracy is important and 83 percent feel that their country is  democratic. Thus, China’s perceived democratic deficit is the lowest on earth, at 8 percentage points.

Corresponding India figures are 82 percent and 70 percent respectively, yielding a deficit of 12 percentage points. The five countries in the world most convinced that they are in great democratic shape are China, Switzerland, Vietnam, India and Norway.

Many liberal democracies like Sweden, Britain, Germany and the United States have high deficit scores, in the 20s. This could be more due to higher expectations of citizens rather than any actual lack of freedom. After all, this is a perception index.

As much as 72 percent of Chinese respondents feel that their country had “the right amount of democracy”. So too do 54 percent of Indians, though 23 percent believe there is “not enough democracy”, and the same number thought that India has “too much democracy”.

Compare the Indian and Chinese responses and it gets interesting. On free speech, about 10 percent of Indians feel that their countrymen are unable to express themselves freely. About 20 percent of Chinese feel the same. But only 45 percent of Chinese thought that free speech on political and social matters is important for a democracy, while 74 percent of Indians think so. We see the world in different ways.

As many as 78 percent of Indians see economic inequality as the biggest threat to our democracy, followed by corruption. But only 44 percent of Chinese see economic inequality as a threat. This is revealing—it seems to be clear evidence of China having lifted vast numbers of its citizens from poverty to at least reasonably comfortable lives in the last 35 years. India has much catching up to do.

Indians want the government to focus most on education (38 percent) and health (30 percent) and economic growth (28 percent),  while climate change comes a distant last—only 8 percent seem concerned about it. Interestingly enough, the Chinese think fighting corruption should be their government’s top priority.

Citizens of a majority of the countries polled—including India and the entire West—see “war and violent conflict” as the biggest challenge facing the world. Several countries like Turkey, Egypt, Argentina and South Africa give higher weightage to “poverty and hunger”. China’s verdict is the Covid pandemic, and Israel’s is terrorism.

So what do we get out of this survey? Given that it conducted research in only 52 (or 53) countries, the survey may not reflect the state of the whole world. It does, however, claim to represent 75 percent of the world’s population. But the worth of all such study results depends on some key factors. One, the selection of a sample of respondents which represents the population with some authenticity.

A thousand people from China and India each are answering questionnaires—and India and China constitute 35 percent of the world’s population. But the study also interviews about the same number from Belgium—a nation that accounts for 0.15 percent of living human beings. Do a thousand Indians represent as much of statistically trustworthy opinion as a thousand Belgians do? Even if you have sliced and diced the Indian respondent base by demographic data—five upper-middle-class Tamil Brahmins who work in the software industry and 12 adivasi women who are trying to set up an organic farming cooperative with the help of some government scheme?

Two, the methodology of collecting the responses. This Latana study is entirely internet-based, which is limiting in at least two ways. One, you need a smartphone and a broadband connection to respond, which leaves out large swathes of the world population. Two, the people who reply are mostly those who have the time and patience to fill in answers to dozens of questions in the forms (I may be totally wrong, but I can think of very few non-politically-affiliated persons who will do this—or idle rich people who think it’s a good afternoon lark after three vodka-tonics). But this methodology is perhaps unavoidable right now, because personal interviews of 53,000 people in 52 (or 53) countries will be a pandemic-related logistical nightmare and extremely expensive.

And then you come to a country like China. Beijing has hundreds of thousands of human censors working day and night, plus artificial intelligence algorithms, keeping a hawk eye on posts and conversations on all the websites and apps that Chinese citizens are permitted to access. Every Chinese web surfer is aware of this. China is not a democracy. Yet it calls itself the People’s Republic of China. This is an old scam. Till the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 leading to the unification of Germany, the Soviet-vassal autocratic East Germany was called the Democratic Republic of Germany (the liberal West Germany was the Federal German Republic). North Korea, isolated from most of the world, and ruled by dictators, is called the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.

So, there are only two possibilities about how China scored so high in the Democracy Perception Index. One, the respondents knew that their  box-ticking on the forms would be tracked, so they decided to suck up to the government in the hope of some small rewards or at the very least to be left in peace.

The second possibility is of course that the respondents genuinely believe the Chinese Communist Party line on democracy, as it goes all out to create an incredibly regimented and rights-less society for the “greater good” of China and strives to be the world’s leading superpower.

Either way, Xi Jinping wins. For some time at least.

To analytical people who have the time, these surveys and indices can be fun to dissect. But when was the last time any Indian was able to convince anyone else of anything, using facts and intellect, about anything the other person didn’t already believe in? As per this survey, the Chinese take pride in the fact that they are the more democratically satisfied country in the world. That’s the story.
Sandipan Deb is an independent writer. Views are personal.
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