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The Dictator’s Two Dilemmas

Surveys conducted in 14 Asian countries over a 15-year span show that respondents under authoritarian regimes trust state institutions more than their counterparts in democracies do. And yet, when authoritarians' modernization efforts succeed, they unwittingly create fertile ground for liberal-democratic values.

NEW YORK – 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.