Another Chicken Little Post on China

Last fall, I described what I saw as an “accumulating risk of crisis” in China. Recent developments in two parts of the country only reinforce my sense that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is entering a period during which it will find it increasingly hard to sustain its monopoly on state authority.

The first part of the country drawing fresh attention is Hong Kong, where pro-democracy activists have mobilized a new nonviolent challenge to the Party’s authority in spite of the center’s pointed efforts to discourage them. Organizing under the Occupy Central label, these activists recently held an unofficial referendum that drew nearly 800,000 voters who overwhelmingly endorsed proposals that would allow the public to nominate candidates for elections in 2017—an idea that Beijing has repeatedly and unequivocally rejected. Today, on 1 July, tens of thousands of people marched into the city’s center to press those same demands.

1 July 2014 rally in Hong Kong (AP via BBC News)

The 1 July rally looks set to be one of the island’s largest protests in years, and it comes only weeks after Beijing issued a white paper affirming its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong. Although the official line since the 1997 handover has been “one country, two systems,” the expectation has generally been that national leaders would only tolerate differences that didn’t directly challenge their authority, and the new white paper made that implicit policy a bit clearer. Apparently, though, many Hong Kong residents aren’t willing to leave that assertion unchallenged, and the resulting conflict is almost certain to persist into and beyond those 2017 elections, assuming Beijing doesn’t concede the point before then.

The second restive area is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where Uyghurs have agitated for greater autonomy or outright independence since the area’s incorporation into China in 1949. Over the past year or so, the pace of this conflict has intensified again.

The Chinese government describes this conflict as a fight against terrorism, and some of the recent attacks—see here and here, for example—have targeted and killed large numbers of civilians. As Assaf Moghadam argues in a recent blog post, however, the line between terrorism and insurgency is almost always blurry in practice. Terrorism and insurgency—and, for that matter, campaigns of nonviolent resistance—are all tactical variations on the theme of rebellion. In Xinjiang, we see evidence of a wider insurgency in recent attacks on police stations and security checkpoints, symbols of the “occupying power” and certainly not civilian targets. Some Uyghurs have also engaged in nonviolent protests, although when they have, the police have responded harshly.

In any case, the tactical variation and increased pace and intensity of the clashes leads me to believe that this conflict should now be described as a separatist rebellion, and that this rebellion now poses a significant challenge to the Communist Party. Uyghurs certainly aren’t going to storm the capital, and they are highly unlikely to win sovereignty or independence for Xinjiang as long as the CPC still rules. Nevertheless, the expanding rebellion is taxing the center, and it threatens to make Party leaders look less competent than they would like.

Neither of these conflicts is new, and the Party has weathered flare-ups in both regions before. What is new is their concurrence with each other and with a number of other serious political and economic challenges. As the conflicts in Xinjiang and Hong Kong intensify, China’s real-estate market finally appears to be cooling, with potentially significant effects on the country’s economy, and pollution remains a national crisis that continues to stir sporadic unrest among otherwise “ordinary” citizens. And, of course, Party leaders are simultaneously pursuing an anti-corruption campaign that is hitting higher and higher targets. This campaign is ostensibly intended to bolster the economy and to address popular frustration over abuses of power, but like any purge, it also risks generating fresh enemies.

For reasons Barbara Geddes helps to illuminate (here), consolidated single-party authoritarian regimes like China’s tend to be quite resilient. They persist because they usually do a good job suppressing domestic opponents and co-opting would-be rivals within the ruling party. Single-party regimes are better than others at co-opting internal rivals because, under all but exceptional circumstances, regime survival reliably generates better payoffs for all factions than the alternatives.

Eventually, though, even single-party regimes break down, and when they do, it’s usually in the face of an economic crisis that simultaneously stirs popular frustration and weakens incentives for elites to remain loyal (on this point, see Haggard and Kaufman, too). Exactly how these regimes come undone is a matter of local circumstance and historical accident, but generally speaking, the likelihood increases as popular agitation swells and the array of potential elite defectors widens.

China’s slowing growth rate and snowballing financial troubles indicate that the risk of an economic crisis is still increasing. At the same time, the crises in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the many cities and towns where citizens are repeatedly protesting against pollution and corruption suggest that insiders who choose to defect would have plenty of potential allies to choose from. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that the CPC regime is on the brink of collapse, but I would be surprised to see it survive in its current form—with no legal opposition and direct elections in rural villages only—to and through the Party’s next National Congress, due in in 2017.

China and Russia and What Could Have Happened

Twenty five years ago, I was strolling down Leningrad’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, with a clutch of other American undergraduates who had recently arrived for two months of intensive language study when Professor Edna Andrews dashed up to us with the news. “They’re shooting them,” she said (or something like it—who can trust a 25-year-old memory of a speech fragment?) with obvious agitation. “They’re shooting the students in Tiananmen Square!”

Had Edna not given us that news, we probably wouldn’t have heard it, or at least not until we got home. In 1989, glasnost’ had already come to the USSR, but that didn’t mean speech was free. State newspapers were still the only ones around, at least for those of us without connections to the world of samizdat. Some of those newspapers were more informative than others, but the limits of political conversation were still clearly proscribed. The Internet didn’t exist, and international calls could only be made by appointment from state-run locations with plastic phones in cubicle-like spaces and who-knows who listening while you talked. Trustworthy information still only trickled through a public sphere mostly bifurcated between propaganda and silence.

What’s striking to me in retrospect is how differently things could have turned out in both countries. When she gave us the news about Tiananmen, Edna was surely agitated because it involved students like the ones she taught being slaughtered. I suspect she was also distressed, though, because at the time it was still easy to imagine something similar happening in the USSR, perhaps even to people she knew personally.

In 1989, politics had already started to move in the Soviet Union, but neither democratization nor disintegration was a foregone conclusion. That spring, citizens had picked delegates to the inaugural session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in elections that were, at the time, the freest the USSR had ever held. The new Congress’ sessions were shown on live television, and their content was stunning. “Deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified,” Thomas Skallerup and James P. Nichol describe in their chapter for the Library of Congress’ Russia country study. “Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military.”

But the outspokenness of those reformist deputies belied their formal power. More than 80 percent of the Congress’ deputies were Communist Party members, and the new legislative body the deputies elected that summer, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was stuffed with “old-style party apparatchiks.” Two years later, reactionaries inside the government mounted a coup attempt in which President Gorbachev was arrested and detained for a few days and tanks were deployed on the streets of Moscow.

Tank near Red Square on 19 August 1991. © Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images

That August Putsch looks a bit clowny with hindsight, but it didn’t have to fail. Likewise, the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 uprising didn’t have to happen, or to succeed when it did. In a story published this week in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley describe the uncertainty of Chinese policy toward the uprising and the disunity of the armed forces tasked with executing it—and, eventually, the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“At the time,” Jacobs and Buckley write, “few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.” Seven senior commanders signed a petition calling on political leaders to withdraw the troops. Those leaders responded by disconnecting many of the special phones those commanders used to communicate with each other. When troops were finally given orders to retake the square “at any cost,” some commanders ignored them. At least one pretended that his battalion’s radio had malfunctioned.

As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their study of civil resistance, nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to succeed when they prompt defections by security forces. The Tiananmen uprising was crushed, but history could have slipped in many other directions. And it still can.

Censorship in China and the “Known Unknown” of Political Stability

This week I read two interesting articles on censorship in China, one by former New York Times Beijing correspondent Howard French and the other by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. Together, they point to what the not-so-great Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known unknown” in our understanding of China: Is that country’s ruling party really maintaining political stability in spite of the myriad and increasing pressures it faces, or is it just manipulating the information we receive well enough to make us think that it is?

Osnos’ essay, for the Times‘ Sunday Review, relates his decision not to have his new book published in China because of the extensive cuts that would have required. Osnos’ description of “China’s censored world” should be familiar to anyone who has studied or spent time in an authoritarian regime: the limits of permissible speech are always a little fuzzy, and people test them at their own peril.

Living and writing in Beijing from 2005 to 2013, I found that the precise boundaries of the censored world were difficult to map. Though some rules leak to the public—last month, the State Council Information Office advised all websites to “find and remove the video titled ‘Actual Footage of Chengdu Police Surrounding and Beating Homeowners Who Were Defending Their Rights'”—most of the censored world is populated by unmentionable names and untellable stories, defined by rules that are themselves secret.

French’s article , for Columbia Journalism Review, focuses on the arc of censorship of major foreign outlets over the past several years, using the tale of a spiked Bloomberg exposé to show how that arc has bent toward tighter control after a short-lived boom in investigative journalism on high politics. French reported from China for the New York Times from 2003 to 2008, a time when, he says, foreign correspondents often gleaned some of their best material from frustrated Chinese counterparts who reasoned “that at least the news would be on the record somewhere, and with a bit of luck, word might eventually filter back into China.” That changed in 2012, however, when those foreign outlets competed “over a critical story: political maneuvering and corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese political system.”

Against the backdrop of a once-a-decade leadership transition in China, three big American news organizations, one after the other, began breaking historic ground with original investigative work, ground on which no one in the Chinese media, however plucky, had ever dared to tread.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials fought back, using both political and commercial levers to put the lid back on. According to Osnos,

The New York Times has been unable to receive new residency visas for journalists for more than a year, because it reported on the family wealth of Chinese leaders. Bloomberg News is facing similar retaliation for its investigations of party officials.

French’s article in particular got me thinking about how this tightening of censorship in China might be obscuring our view of trends in politics there. By definition, censorship produces selection bias in the flow of information we receive, and in this case we know the censors’ intent is to bias our perceptions in a particular direction. Right now, the Chinese regime is under a remarkable amount of pressure. Some observers have argued that the Communist Party is well equipped to manage this pressure and point to the absence of obvious crisis as corroborating evidence, but I’m not so sure. As Osnos describes,

The most difficult part of writing about contemporary China is capturing its proportions: How much of the story is truly inspiring, and how much of it is truly grim? How much of its values are reflected in technology start-ups and stories of self-creation, and how much of its values are reflected in the Great Firewall and abuses of power? It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins—a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact—but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world at a moment when it is making fundamental choices about what kind of country it will become.

The Moral of the Tale of Soviet Reform

According to the Moscow Times,

The Communist Party of China has compelled its officials to watch a documentary about the Soviet Union’s collapse to draw lessons on how not to govern, and to ensure that they remain disciplined amid economic reforms.

The film “has been shown at dozens of political meetings during the past few months” as part of a larger push to shore up party discipline during a period of economic reform, a process that carries significant political risks.

So what’s the takeaway those party functionaries are supposed to glean? According to social scientist Yakov Berger:

Market reforms are one thing, and political reforms are a completely different thing.

So…”Just say no”? Now I’m curious to see the film. After all, it’s not like the CPSU under Gorbachev set out in 1986 with a plan to allow free speech and multiparty democracy.

Glasnost’ is now widely used as shorthand for sweeping political reform, a throwing open of the gates (or tearing down of the walls?) impeding civil liberties in authoritarian regimes. In fact, as Joseph Gibbs and others have argued, glasnost’ actually got its start in the early 1980s as a limited blurring of the lines on permissible speech that was explicitly intended to work in service to the Communist Party’s larger agenda of economic restructuring, or perestroika. By that time, some party leaders recognized that inefficiency was stifling the Soviet economy, that planners would need better information to combat these ills, and that many bureaucrats would try to resist any changes. Glasnost’ was the solution those party leaders hit on. Under this new policy, citizens were allowed to speak more openly about certain aspects of their work or the economy in an effort to help ferret out the waste and corruption that was dragging the USSR down. In essence, glasnost’ was a whip the party leadership could employ against its own bureaucracy in pursuit of greater efficiency. This was decidedly not freedom of speech, however, and it certainly did not entail any larger ideas about ending the Party’s monopoly on power, an eventuality that many national party leaders bitterly contested until pretty late in the game.

Well, what happened? Unintended consequences, that’s what. People responded strategically to these new developments and began to probe the openings glasnost’ created. Like China, the USSR was a large country ostensibly governed by a massive and variegated political machine. Party officials at the local and regional and national level argued among themselves about how to respond to attempts to probe the limits of glasnost’, and the results of those arguments varied. Those variations suggested further openings that reformists and activists then explored further, a process that led eventually but hardly directly to wider political change.

Chinese officials seem to believe, or at least to hope, that they can avoid this path by responding firmly to attempts to convert economic reforms into political challenges, by sharply distinguishing between the two and only doing the one. Maybe they’re right, but I don’t think so. It’s worth recalling that the Soviets sometimes tried to draw clear lines, too—in Tbilisi in April 1989, for example—but those harsh responses didn’t always have the desired effect.

So, yes, market reforms are one thing and political change another, but my summation of the Soviet experience would be a bit different. As I see it, reform of any significant scope or scale is a process that you can try to guide, but it is not something that you can control. Have fun trying to ride the tiger, President Xi.

N.B. This is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote on Tumbling Chimp yesterday morning.

Can Venezuela’s Maduro Survive Hyperinflation?

Venezuela is probably sliding into a period of hyperinflation, says the Cato Institute’s Steve Hanke. A picture in a recent blog post of his pretty much tells the story:

venezuela_chart_22

The economic crisis of which this inflationary spiral is just one part has lots of people wondering how long Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, can hang on to power. Historical evidence on what happens to political leaders during periods of hyperinflation could give us a good starting point for hazarding a prediction on that matter. Best I can tell, though, this isn’t something that’s been studied before, so I decided to scrounge up some some data and take a look.

I started with a table Hanke and Nicolas Krus published in 2012 that identifies all episodes of hyperinflation around the world since the late eighteenth century (here). By their definition, a hyperinflationary episode starts when there is a month in which prices increase by at least 50%, and it ends when the inflation rate drops below that threshold and then stays under it for at least a year. Their table identifies when each episode began and ended and the peak and average daily inflation rates involved. The good news is that this data set exists. The bad news is that it is only posted in PDF form, so I had to type it into a spreadsheet to start working with it.

According to Hanke and Krus’ table, there have been more than 50 spells of hyperinflation around the world in the past couple of centuries. As the plot below shows, virtually all of those occurred the past 100 years in three clusters: one in the 1920s, another in the 1940s, and the last and by far the largest in the 1990s following the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

The duration of those episodes has varied widely, from a few months or less (many cases) to more than five years (Nicaragua from 1986 until 1991). As you can see in the histogram below, the distribution of durations seems to be bimodal. Most episodes end quickly, but the ones that don’t usually go on to last at least two or three years.

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

The average daily rate of inflation in those episodes has varied much less. As the next histogram shows, nearly all of the episodes have involved average daily rates in the low single digits. Cases like Zimbabwe in 2007-2008, when the daily inflation rate averaged nearly 100% (!), are quite rare.

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

To analyze the fate of political leaders during these episodes, I used the Archigos data set to create a variable indicating whether or not a country’s chief executive was replaced during or soon after the episode of hyperinflation. Suspecting that those fates would depend, in part, on the nature of a country’s national political regime, I also used a data set I created in a past professional life to add a variable marking whether or not a country’s political regime was democratic when the episode started.

A quick look at a contingency table confirmed my hunches that political leaders often lose their jobs during periods of hyperinflation, but also that the pattern differs across democracies and autocracies. Of the 49 episodes that occurred in cases for which I also had data on leaders’ fates and regime type, leadership changes occurred during or soon after 18 of them (37 percent). Eleven of those changes occurred in the 23 cases that were democracies at the time (48 percent). The other seven leader changes came from the 26 episodes that occurred under authoritarian regimes (27 percent). Based on those data alone, it looks like chief executives in democracies are about as likely to lose their jobs during a hyperinflationary episode as they are to hang on to them, while autocrats face more favorable odds of political survival of roughly 3:1.

Of course, the episodes of hyperinflation aren’t identical. As we saw above, some last a lot longer than others, and some involve much steeper inflation rates. To get a sense of how those things affect the fate of the leaders who preside over these dismal spells, I used the ‘glm‘ command in R to estimate a logistic regression model with my binary leadership-change indicator as the outcome and democracy, episode duration, and average daily inflation rate as the covariates. Guessing that the effects of the latter two covariates might be mediated by regime type, I also included interaction terms representing the products of my democracy indicator and those other two variables.

The model is admittedly crude,* but I think the results are still interesting. According to my estimates, the severity of the episode isn’t systematically associated with variation in the fate of national leaders in either type of political regime. For both democracies and autocracies, the substantive effects of the average daily rate over the course of the hyperinflationary episode were roughly zero.

By contrast, the duration of the episode does seem to matter, but only in autocracies. Democratically elected leaders are relatively vulnerable no matter how long the episode lasts. For their part, autocrats aren’t very likely to get knocked out of office during short episodes, but in episodes that persist for a few years, they are about as likely to get tossed as their democratic counterparts. The plot below shows just how bad it gets for autocrats in long-lasting hyperinflationary episodes, assuming average severity. Part of that’s just the additional exposure—the longer the episode, the more likely we are to see a leader exit office for any reason—but the estimated probabilities we see here are much higher than the base rate of leadership change in authoritarian regimes, so it looks like the extended spell of hyperinflation is probably doing some of the work.

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

So what does all this tell us about Maduro’s prospects for political survival, assuming that Venezuela is sliding into a period of hyperinflation? I consider Venezuela’s political regime to be authoritarian, so f I only had these statistics to go by, I would say that Maduro will probably survive the episode, but the chances that he’ll get run out of office will increase the longer the hyperinflation lasts. I’m not an economist, so my best guess at how long Venezuela might suffer under hyperinflation is the average duration from Hanke’s list. That’s a little shy of two years, which would give Maduro odds of about 4:1 to of weathering that storm.

Of course, those statistics aren’t all the information we’ve got. Other things being equal, authoritarian regimes with leaders in their first five years in office—like Venezuela right now—are about three times as likely to transition to democracy as ones with guys who’ve been around for longer, and democratic transitions almost always entail a change at the top. We also know that Maduro so far has been a “boring and muddled” politician, and that there are some doubts about the loyalty he can expect from the military and from other Chavista elites. Putting all of those things together, I’d say that Maduro’s presidency probably won’t last the six years he won in the April 2013 election. Who or what might come next is a whole other question, but as a new leader presiding over an inflationary spiral with weak skills and a shaky coalition, Maduro would seem to have the deck stacked against him.

Data and code for the plots and modeling can be found here and here, respectively.

* To really do this right, I would want to plot survival curves that treat the time from the onset of the hyperinflationary episode to the leader’s exit as the outcome of interest, with right censoring at the episode’s end and regime type as an initial condition. As they say in academese, though, the data preparation that more careful analysis would require was beyond the scope of this blog post. I mean, I’m not Brett Keller.

China’s Houses of Cards?

Today’s New York Times includes a feature article that spotlights two major weak points in China’s massive government-led urbanization scheme.

The first is the presumption that state planners can manufacture a social transformation that occurred more organically in the societies those planners are trying to emulate—and on an unprecedented scale, too. As Jane Jacobs could have told them, urbanization isn’t just about moving people into cities or sprucing up the cities they’re in. How those spaces grow, how they fit into the larger economy, and how people feel about being there turn out to matter, too.

The situation in these new towns contrasts with the makeshift housing where other migrants live. Many of those are created by farmers who chose to leave their land for jobs in the city. Although cramped and messy, they are full of vitality and upward mobility, said Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at Oxford University who has studied migrant communities.

“These migrant neighborhoods in big cities are often called slums, but it’s the new resettlement communities that will be harder to revive, partly because they are not related to any productive economic activity,” Professor Xiang said. “And the population tend to be homogeneous, disadvantaged communities.”

The second major weak point is the quality of the construction itself. According to the Times,

The new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

As for why the work is so shoddy, University of Toronto political scientist Lynette Ong tells the Times that,

There was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.

The nexus of authoritarian government and corruption, and the sloppy construction it produces, was the central theme of a talk I gave at TEDx Tbilisi earlier this year, called “Why dictators build things that crumble.” As I said in the talk, authoritarian regimes often do shoddy building—even on projects that are politically and economically important to them—because those things aren’t just built to keep citizens happy. They are also built to keep the dictators’ important friends in the construction and real estate and banking businesses happy, and those friends aren’t always so interested in making sure that the things they build actually work. Reading this article, I wondered again if the Communist Party of China has set its society up for failures of infrastructure on an unprecedented scale, and what the socioeconomic and political consequences of those failures might be.

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.

Proto-Democratization in China?

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a story that seemed to portray the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to track and respond to popular opinion as a kind of democratization. Reporter Simon Denyer wrote:

The government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

According to Denyer, these endeavors represent a significant change from the past and are having a real impact on decision-making:

The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the Chinese people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism…Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform.

When I read the article, it reminded me of a school of thought in Soviet studies that saw important (if underdeveloped) features of democracy in the workings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).  By incorporating an array of interest groups and creating channels for members of those groups to transmit their concerns to Soviet leaders, the thinking went, the CPSU after Stalin had built a form of organized pluralism that wasn’t as different from Western democracy as we conventionally thought. Other Sovietologists, however, countered that these claims about interest-group politics missed the forest for the trees. In a society that still had gulags and secret police and sharp limits on public speech, they argued, the hints of pluralism and responsiveness that some saw in CPSU politics were overwhelmed by the enduring organizational and cultural legacies of totalitarianism.

So who was right, and what does this tell us about China today? I think Charles Tilly’s ideas about democracy provide a useful fulcrum here. In contrast to procedural definitions of democracy that start (and sometimes end) with elections, Tilly jumps up one level of abstraction to emphasize the broader issue of consultation. In his words (2007: 13-14),

A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.

In their classic discussion of what democracy is and is not (here), Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl get at the same general idea with their emphasis on the principle of accountability. Still, I think Tilly’s notion of consultation better matches what most of us have in mind because of its more affirmative connotations. To me, accountability implies responsibility after the fact, the idea of holding someone to account for things he or she has already done. By contrast, consultation connotes a much wider array of interactions at all stages of the policy-making process—setting an agenda, formulating options, debating those options, making a decision, and evaluating the results—that better accords with the notion of government of, by, and for citizens.

At this level of abstraction, there’s no single form of consultation that is necessary and sufficient to qualify a regime as democratic, no single route across that threshold, and no point in time at which the process is completed. Elections are the chief mechanism we use today, but they are not the only form of routinized consultation that is possible or that matters. Political philosophers continue to discuss the merits of alternatives like deliberative or direct democracy, and some observers argue that new communications technologies are making these alternatives more realistic for large societies than ever.

So, back to that China story. Using Tilly’s definition as a prism, I think it’s easier to see why those social-media monitoring efforts and polling firms in China call democracy to mind, but also what’s different about them. Asking people what they think and listening and responding to their online chatter are forms of consultation, but this consultation isn’t protected, equal, or binding. It’s not protected because Chinese citizens still face harsh punishment for speaking out on sensitive topics. The state still chooses who gets to speak about what, and transgressions of those boundaries carry steep costs. The consultation isn’t equal because not everyone can participate. According to Denyer, “Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online.”

Finally and probably most important, the consultation isn’t binding because the state decides when it will respond to what it hears, and citizens still have no way to hold them accountable for those choices. This is why competitive elections are so important. Without a formal mechanism that gives all citizens a chance to reward or punish political decision-makers for their behavior, the Chinese Communist Party can continue to cherry-pick its “listening” efforts in ways that are meant to maximize its own corporate interests without really attending to citizens’ preferences. There may be an element of democratization in these polling and eavesdropping endeavors, but if so, it’s an awfully thin and fragile form of it.

PS. For an excellent academic treatment of China’s online monitoring efforts, see “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression” by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. For a nice review of the debate over pluralism in the USSR, see this 1984 paper by Jeffrey Hahn.

The Twin Uncertainty of Authoritarian Regimes

Between summer trips with my family and work for which I actually get paid, I haven’t had room to blog much of late, so I thought this would be a good time to call out one of my favorite recent pieces of writing on comparative politics.

In a paper for Mexico’s CIDE that will apparently form the introduction to a forthcoming book, the always-excellent Andreas Schedler writes about the “twin uncertainties” of authoritarian regimes, one institutional and the other informational. As Schedler notes, it’s not just that the institutions on which an autocrat’s political survival depends are often shaky; it’s also that it’s hard for the autocrat and his rivals to get reliable information about just how shaky they are.

These twin uncertainties lead autocrats and their oppositions to fight simultaneously on two fronts—not just over the management and production of political threats (“realities”), but also over the management or production of expectations and appearances of threats (perceptions). And, of course, the two are intertwined; or, as Schedler puts it (p. 25), “The management of threats involves the management of threat perceptions.” As a result (p. 28),

Everybody is playing theater and everybody is watching theater and trying to make sense of it…The party who gains acceptance for its preferred interpretation is is the one who wins the contest over public perceptions. In the last instance, it is the competitive struggle over interpretations that determines the strength of regimes.

To skeptical readers who might complain that social-scientific theories should avoid unreadable expectations and stick to observable realities, Schedler (p. 3) says:

One might contend that social expectations are too soft a ground to base our theoretical expectations on. Too soft and volatile and subjective. Ethereal matter. What sociologists tell us that “all social structures are structures of expectation” (Niklas Luhmann) we can accept that as symptomatic of their disciplinary blindness. Sociologists know nothing about the hard structures of political power, right? And yet, if we look closer, we can see that the comparative study of political regimes is built on cognitive foundations. In manifold ways, our theories of regime change and stability are anchored in the seabed of social expectations. Actor expectations about the future form the core of our core concepts. Uncertainty is embedded within concepts such as democracy and authoritarianism, regime transitions and consolidation, regime threats, trust and credibility.

You can find a PDF of the paper/chapter here. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

NSA Surveillance Revelations Won’t Dent Democratization Elsewhere

A piece in today’s Boston Globe makes a case I’ve also seen in other venues in the past couple of weeks: that revelations about the NSA‘s domestic surveillance programs have undercut the U.S. government’s ability to prod authoritarian regimes to democratize. In the Globe, Thanassis Cambanis writes:

Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?

For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.

“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” [Access spokesperson Katherine] Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”

As someone who donates to the ACLU, I think there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the scope of the NSA’s domestic snooping, but the encouragement those programs supposedly provides to authoritarian rulers isn’t one of them. American officials only wish they had that kind of power over their foreign counterparts.

The claim that authoritarian regimes will be more repressive than they would have been absent revelations of the NSA’s eavesdropping rests on the assumption that autocrats design their domestic surveillance programs around the American example and in response to the U.S. government’s jawboning.  Anyone who’s spent much time studying authoritarian regimes knows that’s simply not true. Under all but the most exceptional circumstances, autocrats worry vastly more about internal threats than external ones, and they build and maintain their machines of surveillance and repression in response to those domestic pressures. International norms probably do shape human-rights practices in authoritarian regimes at the margins, but the U.S. is not and never has been the lone vessel of these norms, and the effects of normative change pale in comparison to the immediacy of threats from domestic rivals.

Foreign governments can sometimes affect this calculus, but their influence is usually modest at best. The U.S. routinely shames other governments for their repressive practices in the State Department’s annual human rights reports, but I can’t think of a single case in which that shaming alone has prodded an authoritarian regime confronting a domestic threat to change course. Countries like Russia and China and Iran are already surveilling their populations on a massive scale in spite of years of cajoling by the U.S. government, Human Rights Watch, and many others because they fear their own citizens a lot more. When it comes to spying on their own people, officials in regimes like those hardly need any encouragement.

What does seem to help crack open authoritarian regimes some of the time are material threats—things like economic sanctions or suspensions of valued aid programs—especially with regimes that depend heavily on foreign largesse. Still, there’s no reason to believe those levers will become any more brittle because the U.S. does some vaguely similar things at home. That would only matter if foreign autocrats thought that accusations of hypocrisy on this issue could dissuade Congress or the president from following through on their threats against them. For better and for worse, I just can’t see that happening. The intervening variable in that equation is the American electorate, and those kinds of accusations probably aren’t going to weigh heavily on the minds of voters, especially when so many of them don’t even seem to mind what the NSA is doing to them.

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