Democracy is a contested concept; this article empirically examines how Chinese people understand the concept of democracy in practice when they use this term. Using four rounds of national survey data, we seek to clarify the characteristics of the Chinese people’s perception of democracy and its longitudinal changes during the past few decades. The results show an increase in the percentage of people who view democracy procedurally. The popular perception of democracy does matter. People who view democracy substantively tend to see democracy as less suitable for China, and to overrate the democratic level of the current regime, compared to those who view democracy procedurally. No matter how people perceive it, satisfaction with democracy has declined over the past decade. The demographic analysis shows that Chinese youth adhere to a procedural concept of democracy more than a substantive one, which has important implications for China’s future political development.