China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

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11 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Brittius.com.

    Reply
  2. I think the huge proportion of the country that does not share the state language is another complicating factor in China’s apparently smooth run

    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/130906/china-400-million-people-cant-speak-mandarin-language

    Reply
  3. Grant

     /  October 30, 2013

    Perhaps sadly, I’d have to take Bremmer’s side in that hypothetical bet. So long as the Chinese government can retain some kind of loyalty and enthusiasm in the system among their elite they can mobilize an astonishing amount of money and people to keep people under control. Now, were we to look further out at China in perhaps fifteen years or more, I’d say that the loyalty of those elites and the continued ability of the state to extract wealth and obedience would be much more questionable. But in just five years?

    However I’ll hedge my bets by freely admitting that sometimes something will be obvious in hindsight but at the time most people bought into the idea that status quo would prevail and ignored more clear-sighted forecasters.

    Still that provides some interesting food for thought. Tensions aside, in many ways it seems to me* that much of East Asia is very similar politically and culturally if not linguistically. I wonder if, in the event that revolution occurs in China, it might spread similarly to South Korea, Japan, Singapore and other nations.

    As an aside, could I ask you to clarify what you mean by “rebellion”? Do you mean mass protests demanding a change in government (which I would call revolution) or do you mean some other possibilities?

    *In my admittedly very shallow knowledge of East Asian cultures.

    Reply
    • By “rebellion”, I meant a sustained popular challenge that was either violent (insurgency) or nonviolent (wave of demonstrations, strikes, and such).

      Reply
  4. Richard Bridger

     /  October 31, 2013

    I’m afraid I’m also going to take Ian (and Grant’s) side of the bet – for now. Or at the very least, I’m going to bet that even if there is serious unrest it will be contained.

    Why? For two reasons that come back to the same point as Grant: the apparent cohesion of the elites. In a different arena (economic shocks), I’m convinced that what matters is not necessarily the size of the shock, but where it happens (http://ipeatunc.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=network). Any one of those things you mentioned may cause an uprising, but if the shock happens outside of the core of the regime (party and army) then it should prevail. Successfully managing the succession was therefore critical.

    I’m also reminded of your post (http://dartthrowingchimp.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/why-dictatorships-build-stuff-that-crumbles/) about why elites can stay in power even when they build things that are frequently shoddy and undermine any claim to effectiveness. They can do that because they are satisfying the power-brokers who are the rest of the wider elite, not because they are effectively serving their citizens.

    You summed it up best in that article a year ago: “The fact is, these regimes survive in spite of all this unrest, not because unrest is absent”

    Reply
  5. Grant and Richard, thanks for your thoughtful comments. In response, I’ll make three points.

    1. My bet was meant to imply that I think systemic political change (significant political liberalization or democratization or state break-up) is more likely than not to occur during the specified time frame, not that I am sure it will happen. I still see this as a hard case to forecast, so I’m not surprised by your reasoned disagreement.

    2. I take your point about elite cohesion, but it’s worth noting that elite splits leading to political liberalization almost always occur in response to popular challenges, not ahead of them, as I show in a conference paper from a few years ago. In other words, elites almost always look cohesive until they aren’t, so that fact in itself isn’t very predictive. Your allusions to the reasons for that extraordinary cohesion in China’s case are more compelling, though, and I agree that the Communist Party of China has an extraordinary track record on this front since the Cultural Revolution.

    3. As long as we’re using my blog posts as evidence, I’ll also point back to this one from a year ago about how cohesive challenges to entrenched regimes don’t emerge and act in a linear fashion. The lesson for me is that we shouldn’t confuse the absence of a clear challenger with the absence of its possibility, and the timing of its emergence and form it takes are much harder to foresee than the systemic shifts that makes its emergence more likely. It’s the latter that I’m seeing in China now.

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  October 31, 2013

      An interesting paper, I wish I’d known of it a few years back. And thanks to Bridger for the link as well.

      Reply
  6. I wonder which module the regime is most afraid of, that would influence their actions and the subsequent reaction, a reaction that may make the module grow.

    Reply
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