Whom can we trust? some reflections on social trends in China and AustraliaFeb 21, 2023
China continues to lead the world in trust, according to the influential Edelman Trust Barometer. The 2023 latest survey repeats similar previous rankings and gives the lie to commentators who continually maintain that the Communist Party of China is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.
One may and should question the assumptions and the methodology of the Barometer survey, but over several decades the Edelman global communications firm’s annual report has proved a reliable source of information. Its findings concerning China, on this and previous occasions, are supported by a variety of other sources. When the Australian press accepts its findings concerning Australia, noting that it has slipped several places in the international scale, with regard to its findings on China, it is silent. Patrick Durkin’s article in the Financial Review of 8 February 2023 is one example. One wonders why: is it an inconvenient truth?
Trust is essential in all human relationships. Both businesses and governments rely on trusting relations with the community in order to maintain stability and make progress. In recent years of stress and uncertainty, many people have lost trust in others and in institutions, according to a recent Pew Research survey. The last year 2022/23 has been turbulent; politics in Europe and the Americas have been rocky; Covid has continued to ravage society; war in Ukraine and threats of war in the Pacific have been unsettling; travel has been difficult and social media have been spreading false information. It is not surprising that trust in government and in business has been affected worldwide. The key factors, according to the Barometer, have been increasing polarisation of society, and media preoccupation with negative news.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, now in its 23rd year, is a survey of 28 countries using in-depth telephone interviews. The current report, launched at the Davos Forum, is titled Navigating a Polarised World. It defines the forces leading to social polarisation as economic anxieties, institutional imbalance, mass-class divide and the battle for truth.
The Barometer reveals that many of the countries surveyed are severely polarised, including the U.S., Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Sweden and Spain. Respondents in those countries and elsewhere reported lack of civility and mutual respect in society. This has resulted in increased polarity, with many stating that they would not help, live near, or work with, someone who strongly disagreed with their point of view.
This is not the case in China. A comparison of the results of surveys carried out in China and Australia is revealing.
Most Chinese respondents (65%) expected to be better off in five years’ time, whereas only 30% of Australians agreed, and this result had declined from 41% in 2022. Interestingly, while most of the survey countries trusted business more than government, for both Australians and Chinese, the two relationships of trust were balanced. Wealthier Chinese respondents (90%) overwhelmingly trusted business, government, and the media, while only 71% of those with lower incomes shared that trust. Less trust, but still much higher than Australia. In this country, there was a neutral attitude of trust (54%) on the part of high-income, and distrust (43%) by low-income Australians (the Barometer takes 60% as the minimum point of trust).
Critics will say that no polling in China produce reliable results and telephone polls are particularly inaccurate. Respondents may give positive answers because they fear the phone line is not secure or the survey company will not protect their anonymity. The Barometer is aware of the difficulties and this year, as in the past, omits some sensitive questions from the survey. Even making allowances for the methodology, the consistency of the results over several years in succession is an indication of its relative reliability.
Reporting on the Barometer, Reed Alexander in the Business Insider of 17 January 2023 noted that Australia had slipped five points between last year and this, from 14th to 18th out of 27 countries. This is certainly a dramatic slide, only equalled by South Korea and Malaysia. Even more remarkable is that China continued to hold first place.
Not all China indices are favourable. One point which the Chinese government should take to heart is that there is a massive deficit of international trust in their companies. While local respondents’ trust in their companies was 90%, foreign respondents rated them only 32%.
Commentators who predict the imminent collapse of the Communist Party of China and who focus on dissidents and protests only offer a blinkered view of Chinese society. China has faced severe hazards and damage to the economy as well as widespread deaths and disruptions due to Covid. The Edelman Barometer however indicates that the general public remains optimistic of the future and confident in the leadership of businesses and the government. These results should be factored into our government’s forward planning for the development of trade, diplomatic and security relations.