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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