In China, Don’t Mistake the Trees for the Forest

Anyone who pays much attention to news of the world knows that China’s economy is cooling a bit. Official statistics—which probably aren’t true but may still be useful—show annual growth slowing from over 7.5 to around 7 percent or lower and staying there for a while.

For economists, the big question seems to be whether or not policy-makers can control the descent and avoid a hard landing or crash. Meanwhile, political scientists and sociologists wonder whether or not that economic slowdown will spur social unrest that could produce a national political crisis or reform. Most of what I remember reading on the topic has suggested that the risk of large-scale social unrest will remain low as long as China avoids the worst-case economic scenarios. GDP growth in the 6–7 percent range would be a letdown, but it’s still pretty solid compared to most places and is hardly a crisis.

I don’t know enough about economics to wade into that field’s debate, but I do wonder if an ecological fallacy might be leading many political scientists to underestimate the likelihood of significant social unrest in China in response to this economic slowdown. We commit an ecological fallacy when we assume that the characteristics of individuals in a group match the central tendencies of that group—for example, assuming that a kid you meet from a wealthy, high-performing high school is rich and will score well on the SAT. Put another way, an ecological fallacy involves mistakenly assuming that each tree shares the characteristic features of the forest they comprise.

Now consider the chart below, from a recent article in the Financial Times about the uneven distribution of economic malaise across China’s provinces. As the story notes, “The slowdown has affected some areas far worse than others. Perhaps predictably, the worst-hit places are those that can least afford it.”

The chart reminds us that China is a large and heterogeneous country—and, as it happens, social unrest isn’t a national referendum. You don’t need a majority vote from a whole country to get popular protest that can threaten to reorder national politics; you just need to reach a critical point, and that point can often be reached with a very small fraction of the total population. So, instead of looking at national tendencies to infer national risk, we should look at the tails of the relevant distributions to see if they’re getting thicker or longer. The people and places at the wrong ends of those distributions represent pockets of potential unrest; other things being equal, the more of them there are, the greater the cumulative probability of relevant action.

So how do things look in that thickening tail? Here again is that recent story in the FT:

Last month more than 30 provincial taxi drivers drank poison and collapsed together on the busiest shopping street in Beijing in a dramatic protest against economic and working conditions in their home town.

The drivers, who the police say all survived, were from Suifenhe, a city on the Russian border in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang…

Heilongjiang is among the poorest performers. While national nominal growth slipped to 5.8 per cent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier — its lowest level since the global financial crisis — the province’s nominal GDP actually contracted, by 3.2 per cent.

In the provincial capital of Harbin, signs of economic malaise are everywhere.

The relatively small, ritual protest described at the start of that block quote wouldn’t seem to pose much threat to Communist Party rule, but then neither did Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010.

Meanwhile, as the chart below shows, data collected by China Labor Bulletin show that the incidence of strikes and other forms of labor unrest has increased in China in the past year. Each such incident is arguably another roll of the dice that could blow up into a larger and longer episode. Any one event is extremely unlikely to catalyze a larger campaign that might reshape national politics in a significant way, but the more trials run, the higher the cumulative probability.

Monthly counts of labor incidents in China, January 2012-May 2015 (data source: China Labor Bulletin)

Monthly counts of labor incidents in China, January 2012-May 2015 (data source: China Labor Bulletin)

The point of this post is to remind myself and anyone bothering to read it that statistics describing the national economy in the aggregate aren’t a reliable guide to the likelihood of those individual events, and thus of a larger and more disruptive episode, because they conceal important variation in the distribution they summarize. I suspect that most China experts already think in these terms, but I think most generalists (like me) do not. I also suspect that this sub-national variation is one reason why statistical models using country-year data generally find weak association between things like economic growth and inflation on the one hand and demonstrations and strikes on the other. Maybe with better data in the future, we’ll find stronger affirmation of the belief many of us hold that economic distress has a strong effect on the likelihood of social unrest, because we won’t be forced into an ecological fallacy by the limits of available information.

Oh, and by the way: the same goes for Russia.

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4 Comments

  1. Dani K. Nedal

     /  May 30, 2015

    Your intuition is spot on: China experts (and Chinese officials) know well that “slow” growth and “high” inflation have a different meaning in the Chinese context. 5-6% growth and 9% inflation, figures any other developing country would kill for, can spell serious social unrest in China, not just because, as you well point out, national averages obscure local variation, but also because the Chinese economy needs to grow at a certain pace to accommodate the increase in the labor force, driven in large part by internal migration/urbanization.

    Reply
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