Written by Chun-Yi Lee.
When it comes to combating pandemics, the public’s trust is crucial to the government’s response. The experience of COVID-19 demonstrates how well a government led its citizens through the pandemic depends on how citizens trust and comply with government regulations. As a result, COVID-19 has challenged not only health management but also governance issues more generally. As Fukuyama indicated, the Covid-19 pandemic was like ‘a bright light shone on existing institutions everywhere’ – the way a government and society reacted to the pandemic exposed the strengths and/or inadequacies within the existing institutions.
In this article, we would like to explore the following two main queries: what primary factors cause people to trust their governments, and would the pandemic shake people’s trust in their governments? To verify these two questions and newspaper analysis, we surveyed 1,204 valid respondents in Taiwan between mid-2021, with a mean age of 49.21 (SD=13.93), male 42.51% and female 57.49%. However, this post only served to present our initial analysis. Therefore, before we get into our data and initial analysis, we would like to explain briefly why trust is important to the governance in normal and urgent times (for instance, global pandemics, Covid). Moreover, we will explain what variables in our research are defined as elements and influencers of trust.
Trust is the key to all kinds of governance
In the literature on Covid management, trust is the key asset for the government to lead the public out of Covid, or if not able to be out of Covid completely, at least to combat the virus. Just as Jennings et al. argued that trust is needed to respond to the pandemic and under threat, the pandemic is an urgent crisis, but trust cannot be built overnight. As Fukuyama said, trust is the key to the state’s capacity. The components of people’s trust might include whether the government acts alone with the citizens’ interest if the government delivers services such as welfare programs or public services, or, more to the core, whether the government is committed to the stability of economic development.
In fact, trust is crucial to any governance, whether democratic or autocratic. While Jennings et al.’s research indicates that trust is the key for the OECD countries in the last decade, Zhai’s research shows that political trust appeared to be even more crucial than democracies in the one-party system in China. This is because the Chinese people have an elevated level of trust in the authoritarian regime, while they ostensibly support democracy. That said, it might be a debate whether the Chinese citizens’ understanding of democracy is the same as USA or UK citizens. The concept of ‘democracy’ in China is a contract of trust with the government. In contrast, the government provides economic and regime security/stability. Thus, consequently, citizens can enjoy a certain degree of freedom. That is why to have a stable governance, citizens’ trust is the necessary element no matter what type of political system. This understanding leads us to our research on whether the government’s measurement during an unexpected, urgent pandemic such as Covid gained or lost people’s trust in a democracy, Taiwan. Since trust is the key for all kinds of governments to lead citizens during and out of the pandemic, it would be crucial to outline the elements of trust.
Elements of Trust
What are the elements of trust in governments’ measurement of pandemic response? Crepaz and Arikan used the Irish government’s handling of Covid as a case, arguing that the degree of high information condition boosted political trust from those who already had strong prior trust in the government. The devil is in the details; their research indicated those who had prior trust in government have higher political trust throughout the Irish government’s management of COVID under high information conditions. However, how can we construct the understanding of the ‘prior trust’? The prior trust varied in different countries with diverse social contexts, which is why we need to look more into the social context in Taiwan.
Age and party politics are two independent variables. We assume that respondents’ trust in the government will be impacted by party politics: KMT supporters will not trust the government’s measurements, while DPP supporters will trust them more. In the design of our survey questions, we did not ask respondents about their party identities, deliberately not to let our respondents feel that our survey was partisan.
We use age as the filter to see the party’s inclination. Generation politics in Taiwan assume that the older generation tends to support the KMT more than the younger generation. Apart from the generation politics in Taiwan, a more sociological issue is the elder generations’ usage of social media, which is not precisely in Taiwan, but a global phenomenon. Quan-Hasse et al. indicated that social media is a convenient choice for older people to keep connections with their workmates or friends. Because they have more spare time than working-age people, the older generation receives more information and have stronger connections on social media platforms. The mean age in our survey was 49.21, which coincided with Quan-Hasse et al. Therefore, aside from identifying the main elements of trust, it is also important to know these main influencers of trust.
Influencers of Trust
We resort to Reiger and Wang’s research to determine what factors contribute to people’s trust in the government throughout the COVID period. They discovered that stronger and faster anti-pandemic measures and a lower number of deaths are positively related to the trust in the government’s management of the pandemic after collecting data from 57 countries from March 2020 to April 2020. Other factors influencing their research include media freedom, education level, and conspiracy theories. Following their research, we examine the correlations between our survey outcomes and discourse analysis using two major newspapers, Liberty Times, and United Daily, in Taiwan.
These two newspapers traditionally present quite divided opinions in Taiwan. The Liberty Times (LT) is a newspaper supporting the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The United Daily is a newspaper supporting the Kuomintang (KMT). We are aware of other news outlets, such as Line news or news from Facebook, or news reports on television. Still, these two newspapers are selected for their accessibility to e-news archives and their political identity in Taiwan for representative textural research.
Our research is still in progress; as of the publishing date of this piece, we still need to complete United Daily’s analysis and further look into our survey analysis.
At this initial point, we have two surprises. First, in the newspaper discourse analysis, we assumed LT would be more supportive of governmental measurements because the LT is traditionally a newspaper pro-DPP. However, our discourse analysis discovered that LT used more negative framing than positive ones in reporting topics, such as Central Government, Taipei, Cheng Shih-Chung, Ko Wen-je, and Tsai Ing-wen. Positive framing reports only appear on topics such as Kaohsiung and Chen Chi-mai. The percentage of positive framing on the mayor Chen Chi-mai is higher than in Kaohsiung. This finding contradicted our assumption. However, an important finding is that most LT’s reports are apolitical.
Secondly, older groups support more contact-tracking, and they do not mind the government’s measurement to invade personal privacy. In short, more senior groups are more satisfied with the government measurements than younger groups. This finding contradicts our assumption that older generations in Taiwan prefer the KMT to the ruling DPP.
Based on these are initial findings, we offer some initial interpretations. Firstly, the LT serves more as a ‘watchdog’ than the government’s mouthpiece from May-June 2021. The inclination of party politics can still be seen as having more negative reporting on Taipei Mayor Ke than negative reporting on Taipei. However, overall, LT criticised the central government rather than applauded the central government. Secondly, people’s trust in the government’s guidance does not affect newspaper framing and their original party political identities. Finally, elder groups trusted the governments’ measurements more than younger groups. We tentatively provide two reasons for this finding. The first one is that elder groups felt the threat from Covid more than younger groups; this point is from the medical perspective. The second is that elder groups in Taiwan do not concern themselves much with personal data protection, as they grew up in a period of authoritarian government (before 1987). Trust in government is not an unusual concept for those over 50.
These tentative interpretations further verify an argument that people’s trust in government during a pandemic goes beyond party politics and that trust is unaffected by media reporting. Certainly, we still need to investigate our data to confirm this argument. We expect to be able to present a full analysis once we conclude the UD’s investigation and cross-examine our survey data.
Chun-yi Lee is Associate Professor at school of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. She is also the director of Taiwan Studies Programme (TSP) and Taiwan Insight Editor in Chief.
This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.