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.

Leave a comment


  1. I love reading about your work, and I understand the need to be precise and define the scope and parameters of your work, but I have to wonder what it says about the nature of your research that you have to “distinguish episodes of mass killing from smaller-scale and more routine atrocities.” In particular the idea that atrocities can be “routine,” even though they probably are when you look at worldwide history as a whole.

    • Thank you for continuing to read.

      It is terrible but true that, under some regimes, atrocities are routine. North Korea’s gulag system is an extreme example, but there are plenty of others.

      The point of the distinction between those smaller-scale atrocities and episodes of mass killing as we define them is to watch for and try to understand the phase shifts that push some societies sometimes from the former to the latter. When that shift happens, it usually happens pretty abruptly, and that’s what the Early Warning Project is designed to warn about. It doesn’t imply that the smaller-scale atrocities don’t merit attention, too. It’s just that those smaller-scale events aren’t the chief concern of that particular endeavor.

  2. anon

     /  September 30, 2014

    I live near some of the smouldering remains of the UK car industry, people at the top of our society ran the industry into the ground and sold off resources for short term profit, all the while drumming up “foreigners are taking your jobs” type ideas: cars are still made but not here, the racist rhetoric was clearly BS, the employers actually moved the jobs! But nationalism has the side effect of stopping people being able to move around the planet whilst capital does not have that restriction. That is why those with lots of capital tend to support controlled movement of people, and sympathise with highly restrictive immigration policies – they can profit and consolidate wealth for much less effort.

    Anyway, I live near the old Rover plant, now Nanjing Automobile. Reasonably often I see Chinese people in the area, something that has changed with the ownership of the plant, and some of these people are obviously staff having a break in Cofton Park. I think I am going to get chatting, just try and sow some seeds of democracy, equality and human rights. What else can I do about China? I’m not some non-human powerful entity, like a country or major business (the USA can say things to China, but China will likely listen to Walmart first!), I can only pull certain strings, and not hard. But pockets of dissent are how things start. If I can talk round someone from China who likely has been utterly audited by the Chinese state to be allowed out of the country etc., then ultimately the Chinese system will not last – Nanjing will likely think their staff are some of the most loyal, if those individuals can be talked round then pretty much anyone can.

    Hmmm, I wonder if a thing can be done to highlight China, and perhaps flaws in Britain’s democracy. I think a Free Tibet[1] protest or similar should be held outside the Longbridge plant, the British police would be down breaking things up rapid on the request of a business though: how the undemocratic seek aristocracy here is along lines of money.

    [1] Free Tibet is a problem. Yes, it is occupied by an authoritarian communist regime, but when free the aim seems to be a theocracy! Hardly free, and probably just as unequal and disrespectful of human rights as China.

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