From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy

I’ve groused on this blog before (here and here) about the trouble with “legitimacy” as a causal mechanism in theories of political stability and change, and I’ve pointed to Xavier Marquez’s now-published paper as the most cogent expression of this contrarian view to date.

Well, here is a fresh piece of empirical evidence against the utility of this concept: according to a new Global Working Paper from Brookings, the citizens of China who have benefited the most from that country’s remarkable economic growth in recent decades are, on average, its least happy. As one of the paper’s authors describes in a blog post about their research,

We find that the standard determinants of well-being are the same for China as they are for most countries around the world. At the same time, China stands out in that unhappiness and reported mental health problems are highest among the cohorts who either have or are positioned to benefit from the transition and related growth—a clear progress paradox. These are urban residents, the more educated, those who work in the private sector, and those who report to have insufficient leisure time and rest.

These survey results contradict the “performance legitimacy” story that many observers use to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid significant revolutionary threats since 1989 (see here, for example). In that story, Chinese citizens choose not to demand political liberalization because they are satisfied with the government’s economic performance. In effect, they accept material gains in lieu of political voice.

Now, though, we learn that the cohort in which contentious collective action is most likely to emerge—educated urbanites—are also, on average, the country’s least happy people. The authors also report (p. 14) that, in China, “the effect of income increases on life satisfaction are limited.” A legitimacy-based theory predicts that the CCP is surviving because it is making and keeping its citizens happy; instead, we see that it is surviving in spite of deepening unhappiness among key cohorts.

To me, this case further bares the specious logic behind most legitimacy-based explanations for political continuity. We believe that rebellion is an expression of popular dissatisfaction, a kind of referendum in the streets; we observe stability; so, we reason backwards from the absence of rebellion to the absence of dissatisfaction, sprinkle a little normative dust on it, and arrive at a positive concept called legitimacy. Formally, this is a fallacy of affirmative conclusion from a negative premise: happy citizens don’t rebel, no rebellion is occurring, therefore citizens must be happy. Informally, I think it’s a qualitative version of the “story time” process in which statistical modelers often indulge: get a surprising result, then make up a richer explanation for it that feels right.

I don’t mean to suggest that popular attitudes are irrelevant to political stasis and change, or that the durability of specific political regimes has nothing to do with the affinity between their institutional forms and the cultural contexts in which they’re operating. Like Xavier, though, I do believe that the conventional concept of legitimacy is too big and fuzzy to have any real explanatory power, and I think this new evidence from China reminds us of that point. If we want to understand how political regimes persist and when they break down, we need to identify mechanisms that are more specific than this one, and to embed them in theories that allow for more complexity.

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  1. Panda Bear

     /  August 27, 2015

    I hear your grumbles over the concept of legitimacy and, as someone who has made use of the concept in the past, I share your misgivings over its explanatory value – as you pointed out in your other posts, how can it be measured empirically, do those opinions mean anything (in relation to action) and, in the case of authoritarian regimes, do they actually matter i.e. are they those with power. Then they are the related questions of whether legitimacy can be distinguished from stability and, if so, how. The concept is further muddied by the inclusion of normative associations. My resolution to the conundrum is not to disregard legitimacy as a concept per se – I hold that it exists as a complex, meta-concept that has effects but is not directly observable/measurable (I don’t have the time/space to expand on this right now, even if it does read somewhat analogous to faith) but to focus on legitimation i.e. the process by which a regime attempts to acquire legitimacy, which enables one to be more specific about specific instances (I wish I’d be smart enough to write an article as provocative as Marquez’s!).
    With regard to the specific instance of China’s economic performance, this working paper doesn’t constitute a strike against the concept of legitimacy, it represents a strike against all those who have bought into this simplistic causal reasoning (as an aside, when I tried to debunk this in a manuscript a couple of years again, it got redflagged by reviewers, so I ended up toning it down for ease of hassle – I figured it wasn’t worth the fight to challenge such dogma). The economic reforms in China long ago produced winners + losers and high levels of inequality. Previous research (e.g. King Whyte) has shown that equality of opportunity rather than equality of income is what people want to see. This research is interesting because it spotlights the perceived beneficiaries from the reforms. This ties in with a working paper recently released showing increased democratic tendencies in developed urban areas (, so perhaps there is a link here. Then again, how exactly does the concept of well-being relate to regime stability or opinion to action – these people would appear to be more pre-disposed to supporting some form of change but whether they would push for it is harder to predict. Or is it?

  1. A Blind Lawyer vs. Blind Chinese Power - China Digital Times (CDT)

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