Today’s China Is Communist and Modern, Not High Modernist

This rebuttal to my recent post on China is a cross-post from Jeremy Wallace’s blog, Science of Politics, with his permission. You can see the original here. Thanks to a shout-out from Marginal Revolution, my post got a lot of views, and I hope Jeremy’s response will get the same. He’s the expert on China, so his argument has me reconsidering my views.

The Chinese government released its long-awaited urbanization plan (国家新型城镇化规划) on 16 March. Ian Johnson, who has written extensively about China’s urbanization for the New York Times, begins his piece on the announcement of the plan in grand terms:

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting.

These descriptions of nondemocratic regime’s releasing “sweeping” plans to reshape their economic geography made Jay Ulfelder think of High Modernism, largely from Jim Scott’sSeeing Like a State. Scott describes significant disasters that have emerged out of failed social engineering projects. Ulfelder quotes from a review of Scott’s excellent book by Cass Sunstein:

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

In some ways, then, the summary of the plan in the NYT looks like a classical example of High Modernism. As Ulfelder writes,

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. ”We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

Such a characterization leads Ulfelder to two predictions.

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure.

I disagree with the assessment of the plan as high modernism and with the causal mechanisms underlying the predictions that arise from it. It isn’t high modernist because China doesn’t “plan” like it used to and the described policies incrementally adjust the status quo. The predictions themselves are not wrong so much as they are already correct.

First, the nature of planning in China has gradually moved away from the intense micro-managing of the eponymous Planned Economy to something much more akin to policies that shape the incentive structure of local governments and individuals by allocating marginal resources more to one locale rather than another. That is, China governs like a modern state, not a high modern one. Even the words used in plans have changed, as pointed out by Philipp C.C. Huang:

If one looks to the evolution in the Chinese terms for planning, we can see that the words have changed first from jihua 计划 and zhilingxing jihua 指令性计划 or “commandist planning” to zhidaoxing jihua 指导性计划 or “guidance planning,” and, more recently, to abandoning the old term jihua completely in favor of guihua 规划, now the commonly used term for what the new National Development and Reform Commission (国家发展和改革委员会), which replaced the old National Planning Commission (国家计划委员会), undertakes.

This semantic change reflects a real reduction in the Party’s control of the day-to-day operations of the economy. This can be seen in the fact that this document is often described as “long-awaited.” It is long-awaited because it was supposed to be announced last year. As Jamil Anderlini of the FT put it,

The urbanisation plan was originally expected to be published more than a year ago, but deep divisions between government departments and dissatisfaction from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who has been a strong champion of the scheme, delayed the plan’s publication until now.

I would argue that this slowly rolled out plans like this one are less likely to be sweeping than those that emerge out of nowhere. Additionally, this dissatisfaction implies that, unlike in China under Mao, local implementation of the plan is unlikely to be anything but grudging. There is a growing literature on local resistance to implementing central dictates in China (e.g., Margaret Pearson and Mei Ciqi have a nice forthcoming paper in China Journal entitled “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: Sanctions, Shared Beliefs and Local Defiance in China” that I can’t find online).

Second, the document is not a radical departure from prior policy. Johnson’s statement “the plan [is] the country’s first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history” fits awkwardly with a history of policies regulating and restricting migration that have existed since 1950s (I might have just finished writing a book about China’s management of urbanization).

The household registration (hukou) system was established when Soviet-style industrialization was initiated to control that true high modernist policy’s unintended consequences, namely blind flows of farmers into cities looking for work and escaping rural taxation. This system of effective migration restrictions has been tinkered with at the national and subnational level countless times during China’s post-Mao Reform Era (1978–). Over the past ten years, such reforms have been constantly trumpeted but implemented reality rarely measures up to the hype of policy announcement. Yet reforms have certainly taken place; Tom Miller’s great China’s Urban Billion summarizes many recent changes well.

The newly released document describes policies that are broadly similar to what we have seen time after time in recent years: continued “strict control” of population growth in the largest cities and encouragement of development of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in the country’s central and western regions. What is different here is a central commitment to assist local government’s fund the infrastructure of their cities and efforts to contain “land urbanization,” where local governments claim rural land from village collectives, pay farmers a pittance, and sell it at a huge profit to developers. The urbanization of land causes the “forced urbanization” of individuals that Ian Johnson’s reporting decries, so attempts to reduce its prevalence going forward should be welcomed.

Why does this plan sound high modernist then? Because it emanates from a Communist Party-led regime that still tends to use language more appropriate to the grand pronouncements of Marxism. It is a Communist state. The regime retains the power to manage the economy and guides it towards in desired directions but in general refrains from stating desired ends.

As for the predictions coming from classifying China as high modernist, the country already is dealing with serious problems of ghost cities where any return on investment is questionable. It is certainly possible that aiding the development of small and medium cities will turn out being wasteful economically, even if it might be savvy politically. In terms of urban instability and violence, I’m sanguine. I see this plan as continuing in a long line of policies that the regime has put forward to try to avoid urban unrest–incorporating slums, expanding access to urban social services, and slowing down land confiscations–are all reasonable levers for the center to use to tamp down the possibilities of protest in cities.

In the end, the Chinese regime speaks with archaic language–that is indeed, occasionally frightening–but acts like a modern state. Today’s CCP leadership certainly prefers to depoliticize and to quantify, to argue that it is pursuing “development,” “progress,” and “modernization” without giving the Chinese people much of a voice to prevent them from doing so. But so do other modern states. China today is far from the catastrophes of its high modern era, namely the Great Leap Forward. Let us all be thankful that this is so.

China Isn’t Socialist, It’s High Modernist

In today’s New York Times, Ian Johnson reports that

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting…

[The plan] states that “urbanization is modernization” and “urbanization is an inevitable requirement for promoting social progress,” noting that every developed country is urbanized and industrialized.

In certain circles of development studies, it’s become almost cliché to invoke James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have FailedI’m going to do it anyway—because the book is that good, but also because Scott’s framework suggests two important predictions about where China’s process of managed urbanization is headed.

For a quick synopsis of Scott’s masterwork, I’ll turn to a 1998 review of it by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein describes Scott’s book as a study of social engineering, or “selective interventions into complex systems,” and the moral of the story is that these interventions rarely end well.

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

The intellectual core of Scott’s book is a theory of incremental state-building, but its moral core is a set of observations about cases where high modernist ideology and authoritarian states have come together to produce especially disastrous social outcomes.

So what is this ideology? As Scott explains (pp. 89-90), high modernism

is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity… The high-modernist state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.

High modernism was on full display in many of the USSR’s grand developmental schemes, from the agricultural collectivization drives that killed millions to the massive river diversion project that was finally abandoned in 1986. High modernism has also afflicted Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan (here), and those efforts have often foundered in the very ways that Scott’s book anticipates (here).

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. “We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure. The capacity of Chinese civil society to resist these schemes is not great, but it also varies a great deal across issues and locales and appears to be strengthening. We see hints of this resistance and its coming intensification in Johnson’s story:

Separately, state television reported on Sunday night that 4.75 million people living in shantytowns would have their housing improved this year. These areas are often villages that have been swallowed up by cities, and at times have been flashpoints of violence between municipal officials who want to demolish them and residents unwilling to move. It is unclear whether the plan will significantly raise relocation compensation for the residents of these areas.

Now, I can think of at least two ways these predictions might not come true. First, the CPC might not really try to implement this plan, or it might abandon the plan if and when conflict arises. I have a hard time imagining that outcome, though, precisely because the Party has now become so publicly invested in high modernist ideology. The Party’s claim to public authority is now lashed to the idea of it as a benevolent and capable modernizer, so any obvious slackening of that commitment would open the door to conflict over what or who should replace it.

Second, these predictions might not come true because the Chinese Communist Party might succeed where all others have failed. So, has the Chinese Communist Party cracked the code on “how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves”, as Sunstein put it? And has it married that never-before-achieved understanding with an unprecedented capacity for design and implementation? If you don’t say yes to both of those questions, it’s hard to see how this scheme manages to pull off what no other comparable scheme before it has done.

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.

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.

Egypt’s Mass Killing in Historical Perspective

On Thursday, I wrote a post arguing that Egypt was sliding into an episode of state-led mass killing. Now, three days later, it seems clear that Egypt’s post-coup rulers have carried their country across that threshold. According to a story in this morning’s New York Times, the crackdown that began a few days ago “so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.”

This puts Egypt in rare and sullied company. Since World War II, the world has only seen onsets of about 110 of these episodes, and fewer than a handful of those onsets occurred after 2000: in Sudan in 2003 (Darfur) and again in 2011 (South Kordofan);  in Sri Lanka in 2009; and in Syria since 2011.

State repression is routine, but it rarely escalates and concentrates in this form. When it does, though, the escalation often occurs quickly, as it has in Egypt. Governments rarely back into mass killing.

Soon after Egypt’s crackdown began, lots of observers drew comparisons to Tienanmen Square. In fact, the violence in Egypt is probably already worse. We don’t know exactly how many protesters were killed in China in 1989, just as we’ll never know exactly how many have been and will be killed in Egypt in this campaign and whatever ensues. Still, most estimates of the toll in China in 1989 include fewer than 1,000 deaths and more like several hundred.

The prospect that Egypt’s crackdown is already more lethal than China’s is less surprising—though no less appalling—when we put the two cases into the proper reference sets. In my previous post on this topic, I argued that mass killings generally follow one of three story lines: 1) attempts by incumbent rulers to “drain the sea” in civil wars; 2) attempts by incumbent rulers to suppress emerging threats to their power; and 3) attempts by newly installed governments to destroy the rivals they have recently supplanted. China’s 1989 crackdown probably doesn’t qualify as a mass killing in the strict sense on which my data are based (at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians killed), but if it did, it would fall squarely in the second set. Egypt’s crackdown, by contrast, lands clearly into the third set.

In fact, most of the brutal crackdowns by incumbent rulers against emerging challengers that easily spring to mind fall short of this macabre 1,000 threshold, and with reason. Cases like Teinanmen and Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan suggest that it’s comparatively easy for entrenched authoritarian regimes to quash nascent popular uprisings. Even the rare occasions when nonviolent movements succeed at bringing thousands of citizens into the streets fail more often than not to force a regime change (see here and here).

What tend to be much bloodier are efforts by putschists and recently victorious revolutionaries to consolidate their power after toppling a well-organized rival. Apparently, it’s much tougher to shove a genie back into a bottle than it is to keep the bottle from opening in the first place. Instead of focusing on Tienanmen, we should be looking to cases like Argentina’s “dirty war” and the civil war that erupted in Algeria after its 1991 coup for clues about the paths Egypt might now follow and the toll that violence could take.

Finally, I’m also seeing various claims that the violence by state security forces against Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters doesn’t constitute a “massacre” because the Brotherhood has also used violence, especially in some recent attacks on Christian churches. I don’t accept that equivalency. The sit-ins and marches and attacks on churches may be associated with a single organization, but they apparently don’t involve the same crowds, and virtually all of the dead so far have come from gatherings that were primarily nonviolent. If police and soldiers were only using violence to suppress attacks by civilians on other civilians, we might decry any disproportionality, but we would not call it a massacre. When snipers fire into marching crowds and burn tents with protesters still in them, however, we are right to utter that word. Guilt by association is a slender filament to start, and it cannot justify the indiscriminate use of lethal violence against unarmed protesters.

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.

Enough about Inequality and Unrest Already!

Can we please, PLEASE stop it with the assertions that a country’s income inequality tells us a lot about its propensity for social unrest?

This claim pops up all the time. Exhibit A from an article I read this morning, on China’s official Gini coefficient for 2012:

China’s reality of inequality – and the challenge to narrowing the gap – remains unchanged: the current coefficient of 0.474 poses a high risk for social unrest.

I understand, and am even sympathetic to, the claim that gross disparities in wealth are unjust, particularly in societies where the poorest want for basic needs like food and shelter. I also recognize that organizers of, and participants in, contemporary social unrest often call out economic inequality as one of their chief grievances.

What I’m just not seeing, though, is empirical evidence that countries with higher economic inequality are more susceptible to social unrest.

For starters, there’s the general observation that economic inequality is common and persistent, but large-scale social unrest is uncommon and usually fleeting. What Jim Fearon and David Laitin wrote in 1996 about inter-group tensions and ethnic violence applies just as well here:

Among existing theories of ethnic conflict, accounts focusing on past tensions between groups that are memorialized in narratives of blame and threat tend to dramatic overprediction of violence. Such narratives are almost always present, but large-scale interethnic violence is extremely rare.

The same goes for inequality and popular rebellion. The former is ubiquitous while the latter is scarce, so it’s hard to see how the presence of the one can be said to predict the risk of the other.

Okay, so maybe inequality doesn’t help explain the timing of social unrest, but it does predispose certain societies to erupt when other forces come together. It’s not the spark that starts the fire; it’s the dry tinder that helps the spark catch and spread.

Well, I’m just not seeing this, either.

To look at the association between inequality and unrest, I started by downloading the World Bank’s data on income inequality from Hans Rosling’s Gapminder site. These data summarize occasional national surveys on income or consumption in a Gini coefficient. The higher the Gini coefficient, the more unequal the distribution of incomes in that society. Because the data are only updated occasionally—many countries have just one or two reported values since 1979, the start of the World Bank’s observation period for this measure—I reduced the time series into a single value by taking the maximum (or, in some cases, lone) value for each country. Then I used Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s data on nonviolent uprisings to identify which countries had seen at least one civil-resistance campaign emerge between 1980 and 2006. Finally, I used the ‘sm‘ package in R to produce kernel density plots that visually compare the distribution of Gini coefficients across those two sets of countries.

The results are shown below. As you can see, there seems to be virtually no difference in the level of income inequality among countries that have and have not produced popular uprisings since 1980. In a bivariate logistic regression model estimated from these same data, the coefficient for the Gini index is <0.01. Not exactly the powerful discriminator we keep hearing about, eh?

inequality_and_uprisings

That chart only looks at nonviolent uprisings, but published research on violent conflict suggests that the association isn’t especially strong there, either. In a 2008 paper (h/t Cyrus Samii), political scientist Gudrun Østby finds only a weak link between income inequality among individuals and the risk of civil-war onset in 36 developing counties. Interestingly, she does find evidence that higher levels of inequality between ethnic groups increase the risk of violent rebellion, suggesting that inter-group comparisons play a role in fomenting conflict. Still, this isn’t the rich vs. poor narrative on which the conventional wisdom about inequality and rebellion depends, and on that score, Østby’s analysis only strengthens my prior belief.

In light of that empirical evidence, it’s hard to put much stock in the oft-heard claim that highly unequal countries are especially prone to social unrest. Given how noisy the data on income inequality are, it seems particularly absurd to treat small fluctuations in a single country’s Gini coefficient as a useful indicator of rising or falling prospects for a popular uprising or civil war. I don’t think this blog post is going to do much damage to the conventional wisdom, but if there are any takers out there, I would be happy to bet against anyone who wants to use Gini coefficients to predict where the next rebellion will occur.

Update: In the Comments, Rex Brynen suggested I also compare the distributions of Gini coefficients in a couple of subsets where inequality would arguably have a stronger effect: poorer countries, and poorer countries with no history of democracy before 1980 (the start of my period of observation). The plots below do that, where “poorer” is defined broadly as countries that weren’t OECD members as of 1980. As you can see, there’s still virtually no separation in the broader non-OECD subset (the plot on the left). When we limit our view to non-OECD countries with no democratic experience before 1980 (the plot on the right), we get a little bit of separation in the expected direction, but the difference is still rather marginal. (In a bivariate logistic regression estimated from this subset, the coefficient is 0.03 with an s.e. of 0.04.)

inequality_and_uprisings_subsets

How (Not) to Bring Democracy to China

Over at Foreign Policy, Yasheng Huang’s got an essay up called “The Key To Bringing Democracy to China” that’s so much wrong, I’ve just got to respond.

Huang’s argument is this: You won’t get China to democratize by making moral claims about human rights, because, for cultural reasons, those arguments don’t resonate there. To sell China’s pragmatic elites on democracy, you need to convince them it’s in their country’s best interests to democratize. The way to do that is to explain all the practical benefits democracy will bring.

On why liberal claims about universal rights won’t resonate in China, Huang writes:

The reason is a deep gulf of values. The Chinese have a utilitarian concept of “rights” — that they should advance the greatest good for the greatest number of people — in contrast to the Western view of rights as protections against encroachments on the disenfranchised few.

And on what would work better:

It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China’s economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.

What’s the problem? For starters, the national essentialism. “The Chinese have”?!? There is no way that the 1.3 billion people living in China today are all utilitarians, just as there’s no way all “Westerners” are liberals. Yes, there are central tendencies in social norms and values that cluster in time and space, but this level of essentialism is just silly.

From experience, I’m also deeply skeptical of claims that democracy won’t come to a particular place because it’s incompatible with the local culture. This exceptionalist claim has been made at one time or another about practically every state, religion, or region right up until the point when democratization happened there—and sometimes beyond. Latin American countries wouldn’t democratize because Catholicism. African countries couldn’t democratize because primitive tribalism. Asian countries wouldn’t democratize because Confucianism. Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t democratize because Islam. Well, whaddya know? It’s 2012, and we’ve now got democratic regimes in every one of those previously impervious bastions of backwardness. With a track record as poor as that, the cultural-compatibility theory of democratization should be taken out behind the barn and put down once and for all.

Finally, the idea that China’s political elites can be convinced to democratize because democracy brings social benefits is premised on a misunderstanding of how and why regime change actually happens. Generally speaking, authoritarian regimes survive because they produce real benefits for the elites who run them, and because it’s risky and hard for the rest of the people stuck living under those regimes to get organized to overthrow them. Every once in a while, though, enough people can overcome those steep odds and get sufficiently organized to compel elites to allow citizens to start picking their rulers. If they’re slow on the uptake, those elites might lose their shirts and maybe even their lives in the process. If they’re more nimble-minded, those elites will usually manage to protect most of their property and privileges, even as they (begrudgingly) accept the formalities of equal citizenship and open political competition. What they won’t care so much about under either scenario is how everyone else is doing.

The core problem with Huang’s salesmanship is that it conflates public and private goods. The “balanced growth, stability, and personal security” Huang sees as democracy’s selling points are all more or less public goods; access to them can’t be closed off, and their benefits would be widely shared, regardless of who produces them. By contrast, the wealth and status that Chinese elites enjoy now are private goods. Access to them is tightly restricted, and the more widely they’re shared, the less valuable they become. Crucially, their existence also depends on maintenance of the current system. If the Communist Party fragments or gets toppled, the private goods the Party now offers will disappear, and today’s elites will be forced to scramble anew for the privileges the current system was designed to produce. One guy’s corruption is another’s gravy train.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see why China’s elites would be persuaded by talk of the public benefits democracy might bring. To me, this jawboning strategy seems a bit like trying to sell a Prius to Ferrari driver by talking about how much less pollution it makes. As far as I can tell, the only way to sell democracy to any particular batch of authoritarian elites is to convince them that they and their families and friends will personally suffer if they don’t hurry up and get out of the way, and that outcome is often only weakly related to the public goods Huang lists. If you’re wondering just how weak that relationship can get, just take a gander at Zimbabwe or Angola.

Oh, and by the way: U.S. policymakers have been talking to autocrats about the economic benefits of democratization for years. Like, decades, even. If it hasn’t already convinced leaders in China—and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, and…well, you get the picture—I’m not sure why it would suddenly start to work now.

Pathways to Political Pluralism in China

As the Communist Party of China (CPC) performs its decennial transfer of power at its 18th Congress this month, hints of a looming economic crisis have many China watchers talking about prospects for political reform. In a nice piece by Edward Wong in Saturday’s New York Times, we hear journalist and historian Yang Jisheng say that, “In the next years, [China] should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy.” Acknowledging the steep odds against that happening, however, Yang then suggested a kind of mid-range alternative: “To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other.”

I don’t follow Chinese politics closely enough to know how common calls like this are, but I do know the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe well enough to say that I think the path to reform through routinized competition within the ruling party is unsustainable and therefore highly unlikely.

What Yang foresees echoes the idea of “socialist pluralism” that Mikhail Gorbachev first floated in 1987 as part of his strategy for reinvigorating the Soviet system. As Archie Brown describes in The Gorbachev Factor, when Gorbachev initially used the term “pluralism,” he was not talking about opening the door to new political movements or even to competition within the Communist Party; he was just talking about allowing more voices to be heard in Soviet newspapers. Importantly, this crack in the edifice of Soviet censorship was not motivated by a liberal belief in the inherent value of free speech. Instead, the turn toward openness, or glasnost’, followed an instrumental logic that saw a freer flow of information on a narrow range of approved topics as the best way to check the stagnation and corruption that Gorbachev and his sympathizers saw as the sources of the USSR’s economic malaise.

Of course, the reform process quickly began to spin out of Moscow’s control in some corners of the Union, and by 1990 Party leaders were looking for ways to regain a handle on the situation. That quest led to open talk of political pluralism, with three options on the table: 1) a formal end to one-party rule and steps toward real multipartism; 2) a continuation of one-party rule, but with open competition allowed among factions within the party; or 3) a crackdown that would, in effect, attempt to roll politics back to the status quo ante.

Well, the progressives within the Party chose Door #1, and their reactionary rivals then banged on Door #3 in the form of the failed August 1991 coup that finally and ironically finished the USSR off. The fact that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) didn’t mess around with formal intra-party competition before opening Door #1, however, tells us something about those factions’ assessments of the sustainability of open pluralism in a one-party system.

I happen to think they were right. The logic of political competition dictates that today’s losers want to become tomorrow’s winners. To do that, they need to increase the relative strength of their coalition—relative, that is, to the faction that has just defeated them. When you’ve lost the fight within the existing pool of people whose preferences affect that outcome, one of the best ways to strengthen your coalition is to expand that pool.

In closed authoritarian systems like the USSR’s or China’s, there’s plenty of room for expansion, and the faction that loses today can try to mobilize or connect with movements outside the party who can help tip the balance in their favor. A ratchet effect ensues that eventually and inevitably extends the process beyond the wall that separates the ruling party from the rest of society. When that happens, a revolutionary situation develops, and the dominant faction is forced to choose between capitulation or retrenchment by force. Recognizing this logic from the start, party leaders usually choose between suppressing competition or stepping aside with as much of their dignity (and fortunes!) as they can take. Tottering leaders occasionally try for the middle ground, but those attempts tend to collapse quickly, and those collapses aren’t always kind to the departing rulers.

In the Soviet Union, this ratchet effect occurred in some of the 15 republics before it spilled into the open at the center. As early as 1988, pro-reform factions in some of the republican Communist Parties were tolerating and even encouraging emergent environmentalist and nationalist movements whom they saw as potential allies in their struggle for power against their more conservative leadership. Those encouraging signals, in turn, helped those movements stage protest events that swelled from dozens or hundreds of participants in 1987 and 1988 to tens and even hundreds of thousands by 1989.

Well, we—including the Communist Party of China—all know how that worked out. In China today, the pool of potential allies for reformist factions within the Party is large and growing. Citizens increasingly fed up with industrial pollution, land grabs, lax regulation, official corruption, and cultural repression comprise an array of proto-movements to whom losing factions in a more openly competitive system might turn.

Under these circumstances, I would expect the CPC’s leadership to try to retain control as long as it can, and then to craft as lucrative an exit as possible. The halfway house Yang proposes wouldn’t stand for long, and it’s hard to imagine party elites thinking otherwise and burning their resources trying to prop it up.

So how does China get to political pluralism? I can’t say exactly, but my guess is that it will be more disruptive than the incremental change Yang describes. As someone who studied the Soviet Union as it came undone, I think I have some idea of the cognitive process that produces that kind of prediction. We can see where pluralism would inevitably lead, but we can’t fathom the powers that be stepping aside without a fight, so we imagine hybrid forms that would seem to split the difference. Those hybrid forms, however, reflect a linear model of political change that very rarely occurs in nature, and I doubt China will be an exception to that rule.

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