COMMENT | The dictator's two dilemmas

Andrew J Nathan


COMMENT | Authoritarian regimes often enjoy more public support than democratic governments do. To discover why, my colleagues and I administered the Asian Barometer Survey in four waves across 14 Asian countries between 2001 and 2016. What we found is that authoritarian regimes actually suffer from acute near and long-term vulnerabilities.

When asked how much confidence they have in six different government institutions, respondents in China and Vietnam expressed “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of trust in 4.4-5.3 institutions, on average, whereas Japanese and Taiwanese respondents trusted only 2-2.6 institutions.

We then asked four questions about whether respondents thought their form of government could solve the country’s problems and thus deserved the people’s support. Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean citizens gave more “no” than “yes” answers, while citizens in Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, and other authoritarian countries answered "yes" much more often than "no".

The conventional wisdom is that such results reflect the effects of nationalism and access to media. That is correct. In both democratic and authoritarian systems, citizens who express pride in their country also are more likely to express support for the regime.

Likewise, greater trust in media has a positive effect on regime support. In democracies, where media options are diverse and often critical of the government, citizens who have more trust in media are more likely to feel that they understand why the government does what it does. In authoritarian systems, where the media are government-run or government-influenced, ... 

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