Observing and Understanding Social Unrest in Real Time

Game theoretic models of social unrest often represent governments and oppositions as unitary actors engaged in a sequence of moves involving binary choices. At any given time, an opposition can keep playing by the rules or choose to protest. If the opposition chooses to protest, the government can respond by conceding to protesters’ demands or repressing them. If the government represses, protesters can respond by dissipating or escalating. Ditto for the government on its next turn, and so on until either one side wins decisively or a bargain is struck that lets everyone get back to “normal” politics.

That class of models can and has produced important insights into the absence, occurrence, and dynamics of social unrest. At the same time, those models deliberately bracket some of the most interesting and arguably important aspects of social unrest—that is, the politics occurring within those camps. “Government” and “opposition” are shorthand for large assemblages of diverse individuals, each making his or her own choices under different circumstances and with different information. The interactions summarized in those formal models depend on—are constituted by—the actions and interactions occurring at this lower, or “micro,” level.

That micro level is harder to understand, but it’s what we actually see when we observe these eventful periods up close in real time. The ongoing occupation of parts of central Hong Kong—which, yes, is still happening, even if it has mostly fallen out of the international news stream—offers a case in point. As Chris Buckley and Alan Wong describe in today’s New York Times, protesters in Hong Kong right now are openly and self-consciously struggling to make one of those strategic choices. Here’s how Buckey and Wong describe the efforts to escalate:

Most mornings for weeks, in one of the pro-democracy protest camps here, Wong Yeung-tat has berated, mocked and goaded the government and, increasingly, the student protest leaders and democratic politicians he deems too timid.

“The occupy campaign needs to be taken to a new level,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable”…

Mr. Wong’s organization, Civic Passion, and a tangle of like-minded groups, Internet collectives and free-floating agitators have grown impatient with the milder path supported by most protesters. They argue that only stronger action, such as new occupations, can force concessions from the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile,

Mainstream protesters fear confrontational tactics could tear the movement apart and anger ordinary residents, many already tiring of the protest camps.

“It will be difficult to narrow the differences,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labor Party, who has been castigated by the movement’s more zealous wing. “We have already escalated to a high point. If it would further alienate public opinion, then that’s something we don’t want to see.”

Through Buckley and Wong’s eyes, we see the participants standing at the figurative fork in the road—or, if you like, the node in the decision tree. And, as protesters argue and experiment their way toward a phase shift of one form or another, the government does the same. We usually don’t get to witness much of the government’s internal debating, but their tactical experiments are easy to spot, and Hong Kong is no exception on that front, either.

We still aren’t very good at understanding exactly how those decisions get made or predicting how the larger process will unfold. We are, however, pretty good at recognizing some of the patterns that comprise these episodes (which are themselves figments of our theoretical imaginations, but still). In fact, the dynamic unfolding in Hong Kong right now is very much like what Sidney Tarrow described in Power in Movement (p. 24):

The power to trigger sequences of collective action is not the same as the power to control or sustain them. This dilemma has both an internal and an external dimension. Internally, a good part of the power of movements comes from the fact that they activate people over whom they have no control. This power is a virtue because it allows movements to mount collective actions without possessing the resources that would be necessary to internalize a support base. But the autonomy of their supporters also disperses the movement’s power, encourages factionalism and leaves it open to defection, competition and repression.

The similarity between that description and the evolution of the unrest in Hong Kong implies that we can sketch the causal terrain with some confidence, even if we can’t reliably predict exactly how social forces will flow through it each time.

Naturally, though, we still wonder: how will it turn out? Historical base rates imply that the factions advocating more aggressive tactics probably won’t tip the larger crowd toward escalation, and even if they do, that crowd will probably fail to achieve its objectives, at least in the short term. If I had to make a prediction, I would bet that this particular episode of unrest will conclude without having achieved any of its major demands. Still, base rates aren’t destiny, and if we already knew how this was going to turn out, it probably wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

On the Consumption of Protest Art in Real Time

Today’s New York Times carries a story describing efforts by “preservationists, historians and art lovers” to capture and share art produced by the ongoing occupations in Hong Kong:

Because most of the art is still on the streets, the archiving is largely digital. Some digital renditions and objects are already running alongside the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective, led partly by academics, is creating open-data platforms and Google maps to mark the locations of art pieces.

A new group—Umbrella Movement Art Preservation, or UMAP—has “rescue team members” on the ground, armed with cellphones and ready to mobilize volunteers to evacuate art on short notice. They have received offers of help from sympathetic truck drivers and about a dozen private galleries…

“It is all installation art,” said Mr. Wong of UMAP.

This process strikes me as unavoidably exploitative. The objects of this preservation campaign are art, but it is art that is meant to serve a specific and immediate political purpose. Removed from its original context and displayed online or in galleries, protest art becomes a form of found-object art. The “discovery” and display of these objects produces aesthetic and, in some cases, commercial value for its conveyors and consumers, but those returns are not shared with the original producers. Preservers, gallerists, and viewers inevitably engage in appropriation as well as appreciation.

More important, these preservation efforts give onlookers a way to enjoy the art without getting enmeshed in the politics. They treat the demonstrations as a creative performance, a kind of entertainment—”It is all installation art”—for the benefit of the viewer. In so doing, they implicitly ignore the strong political claims that this “performance” and the objects it generates are meant to produce.

The location of the original production is an essential part of its political meaning. The fact that it is confrontational and therefore dangerous to produce and display that art in those places is precisely what imbues it with any political power. By removing the art from that location, preservationists give distant onlookers a chance to enjoy the show without directly engaging in those politics. Politics is suffused with symbolic expression, but in situations like this one, the symbols are meant to serve a political purpose. When you try to separate the former from the latter, you implicitly ignore—and thus, in a fashion, reject—that purpose.

This rejection becomes less problematic, or at least less consequential, with the passage of time. When done in the moment, though, the decision to consume the aesthetic without engaging in the politics can have political consequences. “Wait, let me just move this sculpture out of the way before you smash everything to bits…” could imply that you care more about the sculpture than the people who produced it. More likely, it implies that you feel powerless to help defend those producers. I imagine that neither of those messages is particularly encouraging to the protesters or discouraging to those who would do the smashing.

I arguably engage in a related form of exploitation in my own work. My trade is explaining and forecasting political calamities that often involve substantial human suffering. To make my work more credible, I avoid public advocacy or activism on the topics and cases I study. So, I am finding and exploiting commercial value in the actions and suffering of others while adopting a public posture of indifference to that suffering. I’m not sure what to do with that fact right now, but I thought it only fair to acknowledge it in a post that scolds others for the same.

The Ghosts of Wu Chunming’s Past, Present, and Future

On a blogged recommendation from Chris Blattman, I’m now reading Factory Girls. Written by Leslie T. Chang and published in 2008, it’s a non-fiction book about the young migrant women whose labor has stoked the furnaces of China’s economic growth over the past 30 years.

One of the book’s implicit “findings” is that this migration, and the larger socioeconomic transformation of which it is a part, is a difficult but ultimately rewarding process for many. Chang writes (p. 13, emphasis in the original):

Migration is emptying villages of young people. Across the Chinese countryside, those plowing and harvesting in the fields are elderly men and women, charged with running the farm and caring for the younger children who are still in school. Money sent home by migrants is already the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China. Yet earning money isn’t the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank ‘seeing the world,’ ‘developing myself,’ and ‘learning new skills’ as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out from home, but idleness. Plots of land are small and easily farmed by parents; nearby towns offer few job opportunities. There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.

That idea fits my priors, and I think there is plenty of system-level evidence to support it. Economic development carries many individual and collective costs, but the available alternatives are generally worse.

Still, as I read, I can’t help but wonder how much the impressions I take away from the book are shaped by selection bias. Like most non-fiction books written for a wide audience, Factory Girls blends reporting on specific cases—here, the experiences of certain women who have made the jump from small towns to big cities in search of paid work—with macro-level data on the systemic trends in which those cases are situated. The cases are carefully carefully and artfully reported, and it’s clear that Chang worked on and cared deeply about this project for many years.

No matter how hard the author tried, though, there’s a hitch in her research design that’s virtually impossible to overcome. Chang can only tell the stories of migrants who shared their stories with her, and these sources are not a random sample of all migrants. Even worse for attempts to generalize from those sources, there may be a correlation between the ability and desire to tell your story to a foreign reporter and the traits that make some migrants more successful than others. We don’t hear from young women who are too ashamed or humble or disinterested to tell their stories to a stranger who wants to share them with the world. We certainly can’t hear from women who have died or been successfully hidden from the reporter’s view for one reason or another. If the few sources who open up to Chang aren’t representative of the pool of young women whose lives she aims to portray, then their stories won’t be, either.

An anecdote from Wu Chunming, one of the two young women on whom the book focuses, stuck in my mind as a metaphor for the selection process that might skew our view of the process Chang means to describe. On pp. 46-47, Chang writes:

Guangdong in 1993 was even more chaotic than it is today. Migrants from the countryside flooded the streets looking for work, sleeping in bus stations and under bridges. The only way to find a job was to knock on factory doors, and Chunming and her friends were turned away from many doors before they were hired at the Guotong toy factory. Ordinary workers there made one hundred yuan a month, or about twelve dollars; to stave off hunger, they bought giant bags of instant noodles and added salt and boiling water. ‘We thought if we ever made two hundred yuan a month,’ Chunming said later, ‘we would be perfectly happy.’

After four months, Chunming jumped to another factory, but left soon after a fellow worker said her cousin knew of better jobs in Shenzhen. Chunming and a few friends traveled there, spent the night under a highway overpass, and met the girl’s cousin the next morning. He brought them to a hair salon and took them upstairs, where a heavily made-up young woman sat on a massage bed waiting for customers. Chunming was terrified at the sight. ‘I was raised very traditionally,’ she said. ‘I thought everyone in that place was bad and wanted me to be a prostitute. I thought that once I went in there, I would turn bad too.’

The girls were told that they should stay and take showers in a communal stall, but Chunming refused. She walked back down the stairs, looked out the front door, and ran, abandoning her friends and the suitcase that contained here money, a government-issued identity card, and a photograph of her mother…

‘Did you ever find out what happened to the friends you left behind in the hair salon?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if it was a truly bad place or just a place where you could work as a massage girl if you wanted. But it was frightening that they would not let us leave.’

In that example, we hear Wu’s side of this story and the success that followed. What we don’t hear are the stories of the other young women who didn’t run away that day. Maybe the courage or just impulsiveness Chunming showed in that moment is something that helped her become more successful afterwards, and that also made her more likely to encounter and open up to a reporter.

Chang implicitly flags this issue for us at the end of that excerpt, and she explicitly addresses it in a “conversation” with the author that follows the text in my paperback edition. Still, Chang can’t tell us the versions of the story that she doesn’t hear. In social-scientific jargon, those other young women left behind at the hair salon are the unobserved counterfactuals to the optimistic narrative we get from Chunming. A more literary soul might describe those other girls as the ghosts of Wu Chunming’s past, present, and future. Unlike Dickens’ phantoms, though, these other lives actually happened, and yet we still can’t see them.

In a recent blog post, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about the relationship between a project’s research design and the inferences we can draw from it:

Research methods, a topic that is seemingly so dry, are the heart and soul of knowledge. Most data supports more than one theory. This does NOT mean all data supports all theories: rather, multiple explanations can fit one set of findings. Choosing the right underlying theory, an iterative process that always builds upon itself, requires thinking hard on how data selection impacts findings, and how presentation of findings lends itself to multiple theories, and how theories fit with existing worldviews, and how better research design can help us distinguish between competing explanation.

A good research project consciously grapples with these.

Like the video Tufekci critiques in her essay, Chang’s book is a research project. Factory Girls is a terrific piece of work and writing, but those of us who read it with an eye toward understanding the wider processes its stories are meant to represent should do so with caution, especially if it confirms our prior beliefs. I hope that economic development is mostly improving the lives of young women and men in China, and there is ample macro-level evidence that it is. The stories Chang relates seem to confirm that view, but a little thinking about selection effects suggests that we should expect them to do that. To really test those beliefs, we would need to trace the life courses of a wider sample of young women. As is often happens in social science, though, the cases most important to testing our mental models are also the hardest to see.

Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance

“People power” is a blunt and in some ways soft instrument. Activists engaged in mass protest are usually seeking formal changes in the rules or leadership of organizations to which they do not belong or in which their votes are not counted. Unfortunately for them, there is no clear or direct mechanism for converting the energy of the street into the production of those changes.

Once nonviolent action begins, however, state repression becomes a blunt instrument, too. The varied and often discreet routines states use to prevent challenges from emerging become mostly irrelevant. Instead, states must switch to a repertoire of clumsier and less familiar actions with larger and more immediate consequences.

The awkwardness of this response turns out to be the mechanism that converts people power into change, or at least the possibility for it. States thrive on routines around which they can build bureaucracies and normalize public expectations. Activists who succeed at mobilizing and sustaining mass challenges force the state onto less familiar footing, where those bureaucracies’ routines don’t apply and public expectations are weakly formed. In so doing, activists instill uncertainty in the minds of officials who must respond and of the observers of these interactions.

Responses to that uncertainty don’t always break in favor of the challengers, but they can. Insiders who comfortably played supporting roles before must consider what will happen to them if the challenge succeeds and how they might shape that future in their own favor. Other observers, foreign and domestic, may become newly energized or at least sympathetic, and even small alterations in the behaviors of those individuals can accumulate into large changes in the behavior of the public writ large. Importantly, these responses are more likely to break in favor of the challengers when those challengers manage to sustain nonviolence, even in the face of state repression.

Activists cannot control the reactions catalyzed by this uncertainty, but neither can the state. The result is an opportunity, a roll of the dice that would not have happened in the absence of the public challenge. And, really, that’s the point. That opportunity is not a sufficient condition for deep change, but it is a necessary one, and it almost never arises without a provocation.

How the Umbrella Revolution Could Win

I’m watching Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” from afar and wondering how an assemblage of unarmed students and professionals might succeed in wresting change from a dictatorship that has consistently and ruthlessly repressed other challenges to its authority for decades. I have already said that I expect the state to repress again and think it unlikely that China’s Communist regime will bend sharply or break in response to this particular challenge at this particular moment. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible, and, like many observers, I hope for something better.

How could something better happen? For me, Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections remains the single most-useful source on this topic. In that 2005 book, Schock compares successful and failed “people power” movements from the late twentieth century to try to identify patterns that distinguish the former from the latter. Schock clearly sympathizes with the nonviolent protesters whose actions he describes, but that sympathy seems to motivate him to make his analysis as rigorous as possible in hopes of learning something that might inform future movements.

Schock’s overarching conclusion is that structure is not destiny—that movement participants can improve their odds of success through the strategies and tactics they choose. In this he echoes the findings of his mentors, who argued in a 1996 book (p. 15) that “movements may be largely born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own actions.” Schock’s theoretical framework is also openly influenced by the pragmatic advocacy of Gene Sharp, but his analysis confirms the basic tenets of that approach.

So, which strategies and tactics improve the odds of movement success? On this, Schock writes (p. 143, emphasis added):

The trajectories of unarmed insurrections are shaped by the extent to which interactions between challengers, the state, and third parties produce shifts in the balance of power. The probability that an unarmed insurrection will tip the balance of power in favor of the challengers is a function of its resilience and leverage. By remaining resilient in the face of repression and effecting the withdrawal of support from or pressure against the state through its dependence relations, the state’s capacity to rule may be diminished, third-party support for the movement may be mobilized, and the coherence of the political or military elite may fracture, that is, the political context may be recast to one more favorable to the challenge.

Resilience refers to the movement’s capacity to keep mobilizing and acting in the face of attempts to repress or disperse it. Leverage refers to the movement’s ability to get constituencies on whose support the regime depends—security forces, local business and political leaders, labor groups, sometimes foreign governments and markets—to support their cause, either directly, through participation or the provision of other resources, or indirectly, through pressure on the regime to reform or concede.

On makes movements resilient, Schock’s analysis points (p. 143) to “decentralized yet coordinated organizational networks, the ability to implement multiple actions from across the three methods of nonviolent action [protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention], the ability to implement methods of dispersion as well as methods of concentration, and tactical innovation.”

Schock concludes his study with a list of six lessons that nonviolent challengers might draw from successes of the past about how to improve their own odds of success. Paraphrased and summarized, those six lessons are:

  • Set clear and limited goals. “The goals of movements should be well chosen, clearly defined, and understood by all parties to the conflict. The goals should be compelling and vital to the interests of the challenging group, and they should attract the widest possible support, both within society and externally… Precise goals give direction to the power activated by a movement and inhibit the dispersion of mobilized energies and resources.”
  • Adopt oppositional consciousness and build temporary organizations. “Oppositional consciousness is open-ended, nontotalizing, and respectful of diversity, and it facilitates the mobilization of a broad-based opposition.” Oppositional consciousness also “rejects permanent, centralized organizations and vanguard parties, opting for united front politics, shifting alliances, and temporary organizations that engage in struggles as situations arise.”
  • Engage in multiple channels of resistance. Here, Schock focuses on the value of pairing actions through institutional (e.g., elections) and non-institutional (e.g., street demonstrations) channels. In other words, attack on as many fronts as possible.
  • Employ multiple methods of nonviolent action. “Struggles for political change should not depend on a single event, however momentous, but rather should focus on the process of shifting the balance of political power through a range of mutually supporting actions over time.”
  • Act in multiple spaces and places of resistance. In addition to public rallies and demonstrations, activists can employ methods of non-cooperation (e.g., strikes and boycotts) and try to create “liberated areas” outside the state’s control. (Nowadays, these areas might exist online as well as in physical space.)
  • Communicate. “Communication among the challengers, accurate public knowledge about the movement, and international media coverage all increase the likelihood of success.”

Looking at the umbrella revolution through that lens, I’d say it is doing all of these things already—self-consciously, I would guess—and those actions seem to be having the desired effects of expanding local and international support for their movement and improving its resilience. Just today, the movement reiterated an ambitious but clear and limited set of goals that are positive and broadly appealing. Activists are working cooperatively through an array of organizations. They have built communications networks that are designed to withstand all but the most draconian attempts to shut them down. Participants are using the internet to spread knowledge about their movement, and a bevy of foreign reporters in Hong Kong are amplifying that message. The possible exception comes in the limited range of actions the movement is using. At the moment, the challenge seems to be heavily invested in the occupation of public spaces. That may change, however, as the movement persists or if and when it is confronted with even harsher repression.

More important, this uprising was not born last Friday. The longer arc of this challenge includes a much wider array of methods and spaces, including this summer’s referendum and the marches and actions of political and business elites that accompanied and surrounded them. As Jeff Wasserstrom described in a recent interview with Vox, the Occupy Central movement also connects to a longer history of pro-democracy dissent in Hong Kong under Beijing’s rule and beyond. In other words, this movement is much bigger and more deeply rooted than the occupations we’re witnessing right now, and it has already proved resilient to repeated attempts to quash it.

As Schock and Sharp and many others would argue, those shrewd choices and that resiliency do not ensure success, but they should improve prospects for it. Based on patterns from similar moments around the world in recent decades and the Communist Party of China’s demonstrated intolerance for popular challenges, I continue to anticipate that the ongoing occupations will soon face even harsher attempts to repress them than the relatively modest ones we saw last weekend. Perhaps that won’t happen, though, and if it does, I am optimistic that the larger movement will survive that response and eventually realize its goals, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Occupy Central and the Rising Risk of New Mass Atrocities in China

This is a cross-post from the blog of the Early Warning Project, which I currently direct. The Early Warning Project concentrates on risks of mass atrocities, but this post also draws on my longstanding interest in democratization and social unrest, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Activists have massed by the thousands in central Hong Kong for the past several days in defiance of repeated attempts to disperse them and menacing words from Beijing. This demonstration and the wider Occupy Central movement from which it draws poses one of the sharpest public challenges to Communist Party authority since the Tiananmen Square uprising 25 years ago. In so doing, it clearly raises the risk of a new mass atrocities in China.

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

The demonstrations underway now are really just the latest surge in a wave of activism that began in Hong Kong earlier this year. Under the “one country, two systems” framework to which China committed when it regained sovereignty over the then–UK colony in 1997, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a great deal of autonomy over local governance. This summer, however, Beijing issued a white paper affirming the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and it blocked plans for open nominations in local elections due in 2017. Those actions spurred (and were spurred by) an unofficial referendum and a mass pro-democracy rally that eventually ebbed from the streets but left behind a strengthened civic movement.

The ongoing demonstrations began with a student boycott of classes a week ago, but they escalated sharply on Friday, when activists began occupying key public spaces in central Hong Kong. Police have made several forceful attempts to disperse or remove the protesters, and official channels have said publicly that Beijing “firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardise ‘social tranquility'” in Hong Kong. So far, however, the occupations have proved resilient to those thrusts and threats.

Many observers are now openly wondering how this confrontation will end. For those sympathetic to the protesters, the fear is that Beijing will respond with lethal force, as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

As it happens, the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessments do not identify China as a country at relatively high risk of state-led mass killing this year. Partly because of that, we do not currently have a question open on our opinion pool that covers this situation. (Our lone China question focuses on the risk of state-led mass atrocities targeting Uyghurs.)

If we did have a relevant question open on our opinion pool, however, I would be raising my estimate of the risk of a state-led mass killing in response to these developments. I still don’t expect that one will occur, but not because I anticipate that Beijing will concede to the protesters’ demands. Rather, I expect violent repression, but I also doubt that it will cross the 1,000-death threshold we and others use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from smaller-scale and more routine atrocities.

State-led mass killings as we define them usually occur when incumbent rulers perceive potentially existential threats to their authority. Following leading theories on the subject, our statistical analysis concentrates on armed insurgencies and coups as the forms those threats typically take. Authoritarian governments often suppress swelling demonstrations with violence as well, but those crackdowns rarely kill as many as 1,000 nonviolent protesters, who usually disperse long before that threshold is reached. Even the Tiananmen Square massacre probably fell short of this threshold, killing “only” hundreds of activists before achieving the regime’s goal of dispersing the occupation and setting an example that would frighten future dissenters.

Instead, violent state crackdowns usually push countries onto one of three other pathways before they produce more than 1,000 fatalities: 1) they succeed at breaking the uprising and essentially restore the status quo ante (e.g., China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005Burma in 2007, and Thailand in 2010); 2) they suppress the nonviolent challenge but, in so doing, help to spawn a violent rebellion that may or may not be met with a mass killing of its own (e.g., Syria since 2011); or 3) they catalyze splits in state security forces or civilian rulers that lead to negotiations, reforms, or regime collapse (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia in 2011). In short, nonviolent uprisings usually lose, transform, or win before the attempts to suppress them amount to what we would call a state-led mass killing.

In Hong Kong right now, the first path—successful repression—appears to be the most likely. Chinese Communist Party leaders have spoken openly in recent years about trying to learn from the mistakes that led to collapse of the Soviet Union, and the mixed signals that were sent to early risers in the USSR—some protests were repressed, but others were allowed to run their course or met with modest concessions—probably rank high on their list of things to avoid. Those Party leaders also know that activists and separatists elsewhere in China are closely watching events in Hong Kong and would probably take encouragement from anything short of a total defeat for Occupy Central. These considerations generate strong incentives to try to quash the current challenge.

In contrast, the second of those three trajectories—a transformation to violent insurgency in response to state repression—seems highly unlikely. Protesters have shown a strong commitment to nonviolence so far and have strategic as well as ideological reasons to continue to do so; after all, the People’s Liberation Army is about as formidable a foe as they come. Brutal state repression might radicalize some survivors and inspire other onlookers, but Hong Kong is a wealthy, urban enclave with minimal access to arms, so a turn toward violent rebellion would face tall structural obstacles.

The third of those trajectories also seems unlikely, albeit somewhat less so than the second. The Communist Party currently faces several profound challenges: a slowing rate of economic growth and widespread concern about a looming financial crisis; an escalating insurgency in Xinjiang; and an epidemic of local protests over pollution, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is creating new fissures within the country’s ruling class, and rumors of dissent within the military have swirled occasionally in the past two years as well. As I discussed in a recent blog post, consolidated single-party regimes like China’s usually weather these kinds of challenges. When they do break down, however, it almost always happens in times like these, when worried insiders start to fight among themselves and form alliances with emboldened popular challengers.

Put those considerations together, and it seems that Beijing is most likely to respond to Occupy Central with a crackdown that could be lethal but probably will not cross the 1,000-death threshold we use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from more routine political violence. It seems less likely but still possible that the prospect or occurrence of such a crackdown will catalyze the kinds of elite splits that could finally produce significant political reform or sustained instability in China. Under none of these circumstances would I expect the challenge in Hong Kong to evolve into an armed rebellion that might produce a new wave of atrocities of its own.

No matter what the immediate outcome, though, it seems increasingly clear that China has entered a period of “thickened history,” as Marc Beissinger calls it, in which national politics will remain more eventful and less certain for some time to come.

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.

Early Results from a New Atrocities Early Warning System

For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to help build a new early-warning system for mass atrocities around the world. Six months ago, we started running the second of our two major forecasting streams, a “wisdom of (expert) crowds” platform that aggregates probabilistic forecasts from a pool of topical and area experts on potential events of concern. (See this conference paper for more detail.)

The chart below summarizes the output from that platform on most of the questions we’ve asked so far about potential new episodes of mass killing before 2015. For our early-warning system, we define a mass killing as an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed, usually in a period of a year or less. Each line in the chart shows change over time in the daily average of the inputs from all of the participants who choose to make a forecast on that question. In other words, the line is a mathematical summary of the wisdom of our assembled crowd—now numbering nearly 100—on the risk of a mass killing beginning in each case before the end of 2014. Also:

  • Some of the lines (e.g., South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan) start further to the right than others because we did not ask about those cases when the system launched but instead added them later, as we continue to do.
  • Two lines—Central African Republic and South Sudan—end early because we saw onsets of mass-killing episodes in those countries. The asterisks indicate the dates on which we made those declarations and therefore closed the relevant questions.
  • Most but not all of these questions ask specifically about state-led mass killings, and some focus on specific target groups (e.g., the Rohingya in Burma) or geographic regions (the North Caucasus in Russia) as indicated.
Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

I look at that chart and conclude that this process is working reasonably well so far. In the six months since we started running this system, the two countries that have seen onsets of mass killing are both ones that our forecasters promptly and consistently put on the high side of 50 percent. Nearly all of the other cases, where mass killings haven’t yet occurred this year, have stuck on the low end of the scale.

I’m also gratified to see that the system is already generating the kind of dynamic output we’d hoped it would, even with fewer than 100 forecasters in the pool. In the past several weeks, the forecasts for both Burma and Iraq have risen sharply, apparently in response to shifts in relevant policies in the former and the escalation of the civil war in the latter. Meanwhile, the forecast for Uighurs in China has risen steadily over the year as a separatist rebellion in Xinjiang Province has escalated and, with it, concerns about a harsh government response. These inflection points and trends can help identify changes in risk that warrant attention from organizations and individuals concerned about preventing or mitigating these potential atrocities.

Finally, I’m also intrigued to see that our opinion pool seems to be sorting cases into a few clusters that could be construed as distinct tiers of concern. Here’s what I have in mind:

  • Above the 50-percent threshold are the high risk cases, where forecasters assess that mass killing is likely to occur during the specified time frame.  These cases won’t necessarily be surprising. Some observers had been warning on the risk of mass atrocities in CAR and South Sudan for months before those episodes began, and the plight of the Rohingya in Burma has been a focal point for many advocacy groups in the past year. Even in supposedly “obvious” cases, however, this system can help by providing a sharper estimate of that risk and giving a sense of how it is trending over time. In the case of Burma, for example, it is the separation that has happened in the last several weeks that tells the story of a switch from possible to likely and thus adds a degree of urgency to that warning.
  • A little farther down the y-axis are the moderate risk cases—ones that probably won’t suffer mass killing during the period in question but could more readily tip in that direction. In the chart above, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burundi all land in this tier, although Iraq now appears to be sliding into the high risk group.
  • Clustered toward the bottom are the low risk cases where the forecasters seem fairly confident that mass killing will not occur in the near future. In the chart above, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are the cases that land firmly in this set. China (Uighurs) remains closer to them than the moderate risk tier, but it appears to be creeping toward the moderate-risk group. We are also running a question about the risk of state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015, and it currently lands in this tier, with a forecast of 14 percent.

The system that generates the data behind this chart is password protected, but the point of our project is to make these kinds of forecasts freely available to the global public. We are currently building the web site that will display the forecasts from this opinion pool in real time to all comers and hope to have it ready this fall.

In the meantime, if you think you have relevant knowledge or expertise—maybe you study or work on this topic, or maybe you live or work in parts of the world where risks tend to be higher—and are interested in volunteering as a forecaster, please send an email to us at ewp@ushmm.org.

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.

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