Who to trust? The rise of China and the decline of the United States

Trust in institutions – political leaders, the government machinery in general, the business community, civil society, academia and the media – is an intangible, but a vital, element in fostering social cohesion and driving economic prosperity. Edelman, a leading US-based private sector entity, offers some intriguing evidence on cross-country patterns and trends in trust. Such evidence draws on an online survey in 28 countries, 18 years’ worth of data, and a sample size of well over 30,000 respondents. It makes a distinction between the ‘general population’ and the ‘informed public’ who are considered to be better educated and in the top 25 percent of household income per age group in each country.

It is tempting to suggest that trust is high in liberal democracies in the West and low in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes in the non-western world. Yet, the ‘global trust barometer’ provides evidence that militates against such a presumption. If we take two contrasting exemplars – the US as the self-appointed leader of the ‘free world’ and China as the authoritarian upstart flexing its muscle as the next global power – where do they stand in the global trust barometer? The authors are dismayed to report the dramatic rise of China and the equally dramatic decline of the United States. The authors of the report ruefully reflect that ‘the public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment’.

Based on a scale of 0 -100, the Edelman report offers three categories of respondents, ‘trusters’ with an average score exceeding 50, ‘neutral’ (50-59) and ‘distrusters’ (less than 50). It appears that trust is highest in China among all the nations surveyed (74 points for the general population, 83 for the informed public). At the bottom languishes the United States among the informed public (45 points), while the lack of trust is also prominent among the general population (43 points). While China gained by 27 points relative to last year, the US registered a 37-point fall relative to 2017. It is plausible to argue that the ascendency of the Trump Presidency has played a key role in the changing nature of trust in the United States. Perhaps the average American has become the victim of ‘fake news’.

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