Why the Communist Party of China Is Right to Worry about Popular Protests

China’s rulers are very nervous about collective action by their own citizens, and they have reason to be. Statistical forecasting of democratic transitions supports the supposition that, far more than leadership change or a slumping economy, the mobilization of nonviolent uprisings is what could tip China toward deep political reform. In the short term, the most likely outcome under all scenarios is a continuation of Communist rule, but the path to democratization seems almost certain to run through popular protests.

We know that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is very worried about collective action because they’re showing it. According to a recent study by social scientists Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Molly Roberts of more than 1,400 social-media services in China,

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collection action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.

We also know that, in spite of these efforts, popular protests are still happening in China, and their frequency seems to be increasing, particularly around issues of environmental protection and public health. According to a recent post on the International Herald Tribune‘s IHT Rendezvous blog,

Although there are tens of thousands of civic protests every year in China, most are small-scale, ineffectual and officially smothered. But high profile demonstrations over environmental issues are occurring with more regularity, size, violence and political oomph.

That last point about the size, violence, and “political oomph” of these popular challenges was driven home by photographs from a recent protest in the eastern Chinese city of Qidong, where citizens confronted local authorities over their plans to dump waste water from a paper plant and compelled them to reverse course.

How much of threat does contentious collective action really pose to Communist Party rule, though? To try to answer this question, I used a statistical model designed to predict switches from authoritarian to democratic rule to estimate the likelihood of that event’s occurrence in China under various alternative scenarios. Technical details follow at the end of this post, but here I’ll simply note that the model controls for several risk factors widely thought to influence the odds of a democratic transition, including prior experience with democracy, the duration of authoritarian rule, natural-resource wealth, and the end of the Cold War. On top of those structural conditions, the model also considers the following more dynamic factors (with the “other things being equal” caveat attached to all of the following statements).

  • Leadership Change. Democratic transitions are more than three times as likely for at least a few years after a new leader takes office as they are under longer-tenured leaders.
  • Economic Growth. As expected, transitions are more likely when growth is slower.
  • Civil Liberties. Also as expected, transitions are more likely to occur in autocracies that impose fewer restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and assembly.
  • Nonviolent Rebellion. Autocracies are more than eight times as likely to transition to democracy when challenged by nonviolent civil-resistance movements as they are when these organized popular challenges are absent.

To see what this model says about prospects for democratization in China, I fed it values of the relevant variables under several different scenarios, starting with one representing the current state of play. In all of the scenarios, China experiences a leadership change in 2012 as expected, an event that should already more than triple its risk of democratization.

  • Baseline. GDP growth hits the Party’s latest target of about 7.5 percent, civil liberties remain unchanged, and no civil-resistance movements emerge in 2012.
  • Slow Growth. GDP growth slumps to a more bearish 5 percent in 2012, but civil liberties remain unchanged and no civil-resistance movements emerge.
  • Modest Liberalization. Civil liberties expand slightly, moving from 6 to 5 on Freedom House’s inverted seven-point scale, but growth hits current targets and no civil-resistance movements arise.
  • Popular Challenge. One or more nonviolent movements emerge, even as growth reaches current targets and no political liberalization occurs.
  • Popular Challenge and Slow Growth. Growth slows to 5 percent and one or more nonviolent movements emerge while the Party holds steady on civil liberties.
  • Crackdown. Growth slows to 5 percent and nonviolent movements emerge, but the Party responds by tightening the screws, dropping the country’s civil-liberties score from 6 to 7.

Now, here are the predicted probabilities of a democratic transition occurring in 2013 we get when we plug in the numbers for these various scenarios.

A few things stand out to me from that chart.

First and foremost, the likelihood of a transition to democracy occurring before the end of 2013 appears to be quite small in absolute terms, and that doesn’t change much under any of these scenarios. The predicted probabilities in the chart range from less than 0.001 under the baseline scenario—which already takes into account the leadership change that’s occurring this year—to a maximum of roughly 0.005 under the popular challenge-plus-slow growth scenario. Because democratic transitions are so rare—on average, only one or two of these happen worldwide in any given year—the forecasts this model produces are always skewed toward zero. Even taking that downward bias into account, however, these numbers are pretty small. To put them in perspective: a country would need to score about a 0.05 to land in the top fifth of all authoritarian regimes in any given year, and nearly all transitions have historically happened in countries somewhere in that fifth. In short, continuation of the status quo is by far the most likely outcome in China over the next year, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Bearing that in mind, I’m struck by how little the forecasts are moved by the ongoing leadership change and the prospect of a sharp economic slowdown. The former is already factored into the baseline forecast, which hovers perilously close to zero. As for the GDP growth rate, a drop from 7.5 percent to 5 percent would be a tremendous slump for China, unprecedented in its recent history, but the model suggests that variations of a few percentage points have not historically had much effect on the odds of regime change.

Last but not least, the chart clearly shows how strong the historical association is between the organization of civil resistance to authoritarian rule and the occurrence of democratic transitions, and what that patterns suggests about how democratization is likely to come about in China. The few scenarios that finally push the forecast upward all involve popular mobilization, and even a crackdown in response to that kind of agitation doesn’t do much to reverse that push.

Thus, of all the things that might happen in China in the next several months, the one that would probably have the biggest impact on near-term prospects for a democratic transition is the successful organization of a civil-resistance movement calling for fundamental changes to China’s political system. Intriguingly, statistical modeling of the conditions under which these movements get started suggests that, of all the countries in the world, China—because of its size and socio-economic development—is the most likely place for this kind of movement to emerge.


The model I used to generate these scenarios is a logistic regression model that was estimated with the ‘glm’ command in R from data for all authoritarian regimes in the world during the period 1972-2008. In the jargon of event history analysis, this is a “discrete-time logit” model that considers the risk of a democratic transition in annual slices while controlling for duration dependency, parameterized here as the natural log of the authoritarian regime’s lifespan in years, interacted with a binary indicator for countries that have attempted democracy before. The resulting model includes the following parameters:

p(transition to democracy | authoritarian rule) = f { any history of democracy + log(regime duration) + [history of democracy * log(regime duration)] + post-Cold War period + energy and mineral extraction as a % of GNI + civil-liberties index + annual GDP growth + any civil-resistance movements + any leadership changes in past three years }

The data on regimes and regime transitions used in this analysis comes from a data set I created for the Political Instability Task Force (PITF). The indicator of civil-resistance movements was taken from a data set created by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan for their widely-cited work on “why civil resistance works.” Data on GDP growth and energy and mineral extraction come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. The civil-liberties index is produced by Freedom House, and the indicator of leadership change is based on another data set created for PITF, this one by Monty Marshall.

If you are interested in seeing detailed results from this analysis the data used in it, please email me at ulfelder <at> gmail.

Leave a comment


  1. kerokan

     /  August 9, 2012

    I wonder if the effect of leadership transition changes if you distinguish between regular changes (as in China or Saudi Arabia) and irregular changes (as in Libya).

  2. Gyre

     /  August 10, 2012

    Is there any data for how the probability might change in response to a military defeat? Presumably it would damage the staying power of the CCP but would it be an impact of a few points on the chart or would it push the nation into revolutionary times? Alternatively would an increase in military power in the Chinese government lead to more civilian resistance?

    • On military defeat, that’s a plausible hypothesis, and I’ve seen good research on it (e.g., this article by Nancy Bermeo). The problem for a large-N statistical analysis like mine, however, is that there haven’t been very many interstate wars in the past four decades, so the set of authoritarian country-years following a defeat in war isn’t large enough to get a very informative estimate of the association.

      As for military power, that’s also an interesting idea. What’s the causal path you have in mind? Me, I could imagine a stronger military making it more likely that resistance movements, when they emerge, would choose nonviolence over violence, but I could also imagine it discouraging them from mobilizing in the first place.

      • Gyre

         /  August 11, 2012

        I was thinking of three different interactions between the military and civilians in face of an interstate military defeat*. The first would be the weakening of the military’s prestige along with infighting about why the defeat happened, and whether or not the CCP would use it to keep their military counterparts lower on the hierarchy. The second would be general anger at the CCP and the military from the Chinese public and whether or not that would push the civilian government and military closer. The third would be the military feeling more distrust for their civilian counterparts and becoming politically more aggressive and paranoid. In all three of them I wonder if a formal opposition (or even just widespread informal opposition) would form and also whether or not government controls would be tightened even further.

        I wish I knew more about the Chinese military. They’ve been trying to give an image of absolute professionalism and modernization, and then I see articles from Foreign Policy suggesting more corruption and factionalism. If we knew the current structure of it we could tell more about how the military might behave.

        Thanks for the link.

        *There seems to be enough useful information about military reactions to separatist problems, basically increasing the probability of a military-dominated government, so I’m only looking at the possibilities for China after an interstate war.

  3. Hello, thanks for the post. Do you know if there’s any link between slow growth/civil liberties and civl rights movements? You point out that “Statistical forecasting of democratic transitions supports the supposition that, far more than leadership change or a slumping economy, the mobilization of nonviolent uprisings is what could tip China toward deep political reform.” – but what if slower growth leads to nonviolent movements which are then more likely to change the political landscape?

    • Good question–indirect effects could be very powerful, too.

      According to my modeling of the conditions under which these movements start, though, those indirect effects are pretty weak in this case. In the model I summarized here last year, the odds of a popular uprising move only very slightly in response to variation in annual GDP growth. Expansions and contractions of civil liberties have a stronger effect than economic growth, but it takes a pretty big swing to move the odds much. That makes me think the association on that dimension has more to do with cross-sectional variation than smaller fluctuations within cases over time.

      So, in short, it looks like the indirect effects from those factors are pretty modest as well.


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