Autocracies outdo democracies on public trust – survey

File photo. Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) honor guards stand at attention in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes for a ceremony to mark Martyrs' Day honoring deceased national heroes, on the eve of the National Day, at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, 30 September 2021. [EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY]

Public trust in governments running the world’s democracies has fallen to new lows over their handling of the pandemic and amid a widespread sense of economic pessimism, a global survey has found.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which for two decades has polled thousands of people on trust in their governments, media, business and NGOs, conversely showed rising scores in several autocratic states, notably China.

It also highlighted that business, thanks to its role developing vaccines and adapting workplace and retail practices, had retained strong levels of trust globally, albeit with reservations about its commitment to social fairness.

“We really have a collapse of trust in democracies,” said Richard Edelman, whose Edelman communications group published the survey of over 36,000 respondents in 28 countries interviewed between 1-24 November of last year.

“It all goes back to: ‘Do you have a sense of economic confidence?'” he added, noting high levels of concern about job losses linked either to the pandemic or automation.

The biggest losers of public trust over the last year were institutions in Germany, down 7 points to 46, Australia at 53 (-6), the Netherlands at 57 (-6), South Korea at 42 (-5) and the United States at 43 (-5).

By contrast, public trust in institutions in China stood at 83%, up 11 points, 76% in United Arab Emirates (+9) and 66% in Thailand (+5).

The trillions of dollars of stimulus spent by the world’s richest nations to support their economies through the pandemic have failed to instil a lasting sense of confidence, the survey suggested.

In Japan, only 15% of people believed they and their families would be better off in five years’ time, with most other democracies ranging around 20-40% on the same question.

But in China nearly two-thirds were optimistic about their economic fortunes and 80% of Indians believed they would be better off in five years. Unlike China, India is a democracy.

Edelman said higher public trust levels in China were linked not just to economic perceptions but also to a greater sense of predictability about Chinese policy, not least on the pandemic.

“I think there is a coherence between what is done and what is said…They have had a better COVID than the US for example.”

According to the Reuters pandemic tracker, the United States currently leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, while China has regularly been reporting no new deaths for months as it pursues strict “zero-Covid” policies.

The results of the latest Edelman survey are in tune with its findings in recent years that charted rising disillusionment with capitalism, political leadership and the media.

Concerns about “fake news” were this time at all-time highs, with three-quarters of respondents globally worried about it being “used as a weapon”. Among societal fears, climate change was now just behind the loss of employment as a major concern.

The burden of expectation on business leaders remains heavy, with strong majorities saying they bought goods, accepted job offers and invested in businesses according to their beliefs and values.

Around two-fifths, however, also said that business was not doing enough to address climate change, economic inequality and workforce reskilling.

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