China, it turns out, is pretty democratic after all. This, at least, is the conclusion reached by researchers at SJTU, the university where I work. OK, I haven’t seen the final results, but I know how the methodology works. Foreign students on campus are given a questionaire on which they are asked to rank various countries in terms of their degree of democracy, with “1” as the lowest and “10” as the highest. China is included and so is the US and various European countries.
How would you rank these countries in terms of level of democracy? Clearly China is not “10,” but neither is it “1.” After all, Chinese people have quite a lot of freedom of speech in their daily lives, and pretty straightforward criticism can be leveled against the government even in public — at least on topics like corruption or the environment. If some measure of the outcome of the political process is included, China is doing even better. If, for example, we take economic development as part of a definition of what democracy means, China might deserve a “4” or even a “5.”
The United States, on the other hand, is quite clearly not a “10.” This is acknowledged by many Americans themselves, and certainly by the kinds of left-leaning young Europeans who ends up as students in our university. Perhaps the United States is a “7” or even a “6.”
These are of course sensational research results. Ripping the print-outs off their printers, the Chinese researchers triumphantly report that “China is quite democratic after all, a bit behind the United States, but not by that much. We are 5 and the Americans are 6, and we are only a developing country.”
What’s wrong with this research? Pretty much everything is. In fact, you could use it as a perfect example of how not to do social science research. First of all, who got the idea that democracy can be measured through opinion surveys? And why should assorted Italian, French and German exchange students be asked? Clearly nothing is measured here except a foreigner’s reluctance to insult his/her host (and the readiness to be skeptical regarding the United States). If foreign exchange students in Germany in the 1930s had been asked the same question, they would have said the same thing.
The greatest flaw, however, is the notion that democracy is a variable. That you simply can scale up from 1 to 10 as a matter of degrees. Clearly this is not the case. Democracy/non-democracy is a dichotomy, and which side you end up on depends on whether there are regular and fair and publically contested elections. China does not have elections and for that reason it is not a democracy.