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.

Visualizing Strike Activity in China

In my last post, I suggested that the likelihood of social unrest in China is probably higher than a glance at national economic statistics would suggest, because those statistics conceal the fact that economic malaise is hitting some areas much harder than others and local pockets of unrest can have national effects (ask Mikhail Gorbachev about that one). Near the end of the post, I effectively repeated this mistake by showing a chart that summarized strike activity over the past few years…at the national level.

So, what does the picture look like if we disaggregate that national summary?

The best current data on strike activity in China come from China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong–based NGO that collects incident reports from various Chinese-language sources, compiles them in a public data set, and visualizes them in an online map. Those data include a few fields that allow us to disaggregate our analysis, including the province in which an incident occurred (Location), the industry involved (Industry), and the claims strikers made (Demands). On May 28, I downloaded a spreadsheet with data for all available dates (January 2011 to the present) for all types of incidents and wrote an R script that uses small multiples to compare strike activity across groups within each of those categories.

First, here’s the picture by province. This chart shows that Guangdong has been China’s most strike-prone province over the past several years, but several other provinces have seen large increases in labor unrest in the past two years, including Henan, Hebei, Hubei, Shandong, Sichuan, and Jiangsu. Right now, I don’t have monthly or quarterly province-level data on population size and economic growth to model the relationship among these things, but a quick eyeballing of the chart from the FT in my last post indicates that these more strike-prone provinces skew toward the lower end of the range of recent GDP growth rates, as we would expect.


Now here’s the picture by industry. This chart makes clear that almost all of the surge in strike activity in the past year has come from two sectors: manufacturing and construction. Strikes in the manufacturing sector have been trending upward for a while, but the construction sector really got hit by a wave in just the past year that crested around the time of the Lunar New Year in early 2015. Other sectors also show signs of increased activity in recent months, though, including services, mining, and education, and the transportation sector routinely contributes a non-negligible slice of the national total.


And, finally, we can compare trends over time in strikers’ demands. This analysis took a little more work, because the CLB data on Demands do not follow best coding practices in which a set of categories is established a priori and each demand is assigned to one of those categories. In the CLB data, the Demands field is a set of comma-delimited phrases that are mostly but not entirely standardized (e.g., “wage arrears” and “social security” but also “reduction of their operating territory” and “gas-filing problem and too many un-licensed cars”). So, to aggregate the data on this dimension, I created a few categories of my own and used searches for regular expressions to find records that belonged in them. For example, all events for which the Demands field included “wage arrear”, “pay”, “compensation”, “bonus” or “ot” got lumped together in a Pay category, while events involving claims marked as “social security” or “pension” got combined in a Social Security category (see the R script for details).

The results appear below. As CLB has reported, almost all of the strike activity in China is over pay, usually wage arrears. There’s been an uptick in strikes over layoffs in early 2015, but getting paid better, sooner, or at all for work performed is by far the chief concern of strikers in China, according to these data.


In closing, a couple of caveats.

First, we know these data are incomplete, and we know that we don’t know exactly how they are incomplete, because there is no “true” record to which they can be compared. It’s possible that the apparent increase in strike activity in the past year or two is really the result of more frequent reporting or more aggressive data collection on a constant or declining stock of events.

I doubt that’s what’s happening here, though, for two reasons. One, other sources have reported the Chinese government has actually gotten more aggressive about censoring reports of social unrest in the past two years, so if anything we should expect the selection bias from that process to bend the trend in the opposite direction. Two, theory derived from historical observation suggests that strike activity should increase as the economy slows and the labor market tightens, and the observed data are consistent with those expectations. So, while the CLB data are surely incomplete, we have reason to believe that the trends they show are real.

Second, the problem I originally identified at the national level also applies at these levels. China’s provinces are larger than many countries in the world, and industry segments like construction and manufacturing contain a tremendous variety of activities. To really escape the ecological fallacy, we would need to drill down much further to the level of specific towns, factories, or even individuals. As academics would say, though, that task lies beyond the scope of the current blog post.

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.

A Forecast of Global Democratization Trends Through 2025

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write up my thoughts on global trends in democratization over the next five to 10 years. I said at the time that, in coarse terms, I see three plausible alternative futures: 1) big net gains, 2) big net losses, and 3) little net change.

  • By big net gains, I mean a rise in the prevalence of democratic regimes above 65 percent, or, or, because of its size and geopolitical importance, democratization in China absent a sharp decline in the global prevalence of democracy. For big net gains to happen, we would need to see a) one or more clusters of authoritarian breakdown and subsequent democratization in the regions where such clusters are still possible, i.e., Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East and North Africa (or the aforementioned transition in China); and b) no sharp losses in the regions where democracy is now prevalent, i.e., Europe, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa. I consider (a) unlikely but possible (see here) and (b) highly likely. The scenario requires both conditions, so it is unlikely.
  • By big net losses, I mean a drop in the global prevalence of democracy below 55 percent. For that to happen, we would need to see the opposite of big net gains—that is, a) no new clusters of democratization and no democratization in China and b) sharp net losses in one or more of the predominantly democratic regions. In my judgment, (a) is likely but (b) is very unlikely. This outcome depends on the conjunction of (a) and (b), so the low probability of (b) means this outcome is highly unlikely. A reversion to autocracy somewhere in Western Europe or North America would also push us into “big net loss” territory, but I consider that event extremely unlikely (see here and here for why).
  • In the absence of either of these larger shifts, we will probably see little net change in the pattern of the past decade or so: a regular trickle of transitions to and from democracy at rates that are largely offsetting, leaving the global prevalence hovering between 55 and 65 percent. Of course, we could also wind up with little net change in the global prevalence of democracy under a scenario in which some longstanding or otherwise significant authoritarian regimes—for example, China, Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia— break down, and those breakdowns spread to interdependent regimes, but most of those breakdowns lead to new authoritarian regimes or short-lived attempts at democracy. This is what we saw in the Arab Spring, and base rates from the past several decades suggest that it is the most likely outcome of any regional clusters of authoritarian breakdown in the next decade or so as well. I consider this version of the little-net-change outcome to be more likely than the other one (offsetting trickles of transitions to and from democracy with no new clusters of regime breakdown). Technically, we could also get to an outcome of little net change through a combination of big net losses in predominantly democratic regions and big gains in predominantly authoritarian regions, but I consider this scenario so unlikely in the next five to 10 years that it’s not worth considering in depth.

I believe the probabilities of big net gains and persistence of current levels are both much greater than the probability of big net losses. In other words, I am generally bullish. For the sake of clarity, I would quantify those guesses as follows:

  • Probability of big net gains: 20 percent
  • Probability of little net change: 75 percent
    • With regime breakdown in one or more critical autocracies: 60 percent
    • Without regime breakdown in any critical autocracies: 15 percent
  • Probability of big net losses: 5 percent

That outlook is informed by a few theoretical and empirical observations.

First, when I talk about democratization, I have in mind expansions of the breadth, depth, and protection of consultation between national political regimes and their citizens. As Charles Tilly argues on p. 24 of his 2007 book, Democracy, “A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.” Fair and competitive elections are the most obvious and in some ways the most important form this consultation can take, but they are not the only one. Still, for purposes of observing broad trends and coarsely comparing cases, we can define a democracy as a regime in which officials who actually rule are chosen through fair and competitive elections in which nearly all adult citizens can vote. The fairness of elections depends on the existence of numerous civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, and the presence of a reasonably free press, so this is not a low bar. Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies is a useful proxy for this set of conditions.

Second, we do not understand the causal processes driving democratization well, and we certainly don’t understand them well enough to know how to manipulate them in order to reliably produce desired outcomes. The global political economy, and the political economies of the states that comprise one layer of it, are parts of a complex adaptive system. This system is too complex for us to model and understand in ways that are more than superficial, partly because it continues to evolve as we try to understand and manipulate it. That said, we have seen some regularities in this system over the past half-century or so:

  • States are more likely to try and then to sustain democratic regimes as their economies grow, their economies become more complex, and their societies transform in ways associated with those trends (e.g., live longer, urbanize, and become more literate). These changes don’t produce transitions, but they do create structural conditions that are more conducive to them.
  • Oil-rich countries have been the exceptions to this pattern, but even they are not impervious (e.g., Mexico, Indonesia). Specifically, they are more susceptible to pressures to democratize when their oil income diminishes, and variation over time in that income depends, in part, on forces beyond their control (e.g., oil prices).
  • Consolidated single-party regimes are the most resilient form of authoritarian rule. Personalist dictatorships are also hard to topple as long as the leader survives but often crumble when that changes. Military-led regimes that don’t evolve into personalist or single-party autocracies rarely last more than a few years, especially since the end of the Cold War.
  • Most authoritarian breakdowns occur in the face of popular protests, and those protests are more likely to happen when the economy is slumping, when food or fuel prices are spiking, when protests are occurring in nearby or similar countries, and around elections. Signs that elites are fighting amongst themselves may also help to spur protests, but elite splits are common in autocracies and often emerge in reaction to protests, not ahead of them.
  • Most attempts at democracy end with a reversion to authoritarian rule, but the chances that countries will try again and then that democracy will stick improve as countries get richer and have tried more times before. The origins of the latter pattern are unclear, but they probably have something to do with the creation of new forms of social and political organization and the subsequent selection and adaptation of those organizations into “fitter” competitors under harsh pressures.

Third, whatever its causes, there is a strong empirical trend toward democratization around the world. Since the middle of the twentieth century, both the share of regimes worldwide that are democratic and the share of the global population living in democratic regimes have expanded dramatically. These expansions have not come steadily, and there is always some churn in the system, but the broader trend persists in spite of those dips and churn

The strength and, so far, persistence of this trend lead me to believe that the global system would have to experience a profound collapse or transformation for that trend to be disrupted. Under the conditions that have prevailed for the past century or so, selection pressures in the global system seem to be running strongly in favor of democratic political regimes with market-based economies.

Crucially, this long-term trend has also proved resilient to the global financial crisis that began in 2007-2008 and has persisted to some degree ever since. This crisis was as sharp a stress test of many national political regimes as we have seen in a while, perhaps since World War II. Democracy has survived this test in all of the world’s wealthy countries, and there was no stampede away from democracy in less wealthy countries with younger regimes. Freedom House and many other activists lament the occurrence of a “democratic recession” over the past several years, but global data just don’t support the claim that one is occurring. What we have seen instead is a slight decline in the prevalence of democratic regimes accompanied by a deepening of authoritarian rule in many of the autocracies that survived the last flurry of democratic transitions.

Meanwhile, some authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa broke down in the face of uprisings demanding greater popular accountability, and some of those breakdowns led to attempts at democratization—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in particular. Most of those attempts at democratization have since failed, but not all did, Tunisia being the notable exception. What’s more, the popular pressure in favor of democratization has not dissipated in all of the cases where authoritarian breakdown didn’t happen. Bahrain, Kuwait, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia are notable in this regard.

Rising pressures on China and Russia suggest that similar clusters of regime instability are increasingly likely in their respective neighborhoods, even if they remain unlikely in any given year. China faces significant challenges on numerous fronts, including a slowing economy, a looming real-estate debt crisis, swelling popular frustration over industrial pollution, an uptick in labor activism, an anti-corruption campaign that could alienate some political and military insiders, and a separatist insurgency in Xinjiang. No one of those challenges is necessarily likely to topple the regime, but the presence of so many of them at once adds up to a significant risk (or opportunity, depending on one’s perspective). A regime crisis in China could ripple through its region with strongest effect on the most dependent regimes—on North Korea in particular, but also perhaps Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Even if a crisis there didn’t reverberate, China’s population size and rising international influence imply that any movement toward democracy would have a significant impact on the global balance sheet.

The Russian regime is also under increased pressure, albeit for different reasons. Russia is already in recession, and falling oil prices and capital flight are making things much worse without much promise of near-term relief. U.S. and E.U. sanctions deserve significant credit (or blame) for the acceleration of capital flight, and prosecution of the war in Ukraine is also imposing additional direct costs on Russia’s power resources. The extant regime has survived domestic threats before, but 10 more years is a long time for a regime that stands on feet of socioeconomic clay.

Above all else, these last two points—about 1) the resilience of existing democracies to the stress of the past several years and 2) the persistence and even deepening of pressures on many surviving authoritarian regimes—are what make me bullish about the prospects for democracy in next five to 10 years. In light of current trends in China and Russia, I have a hard time imagining both of those regimes surviving to 2025. Democratization might not follow, and if it does, it won’t necessarily stick, at least not right away. Neither regime can really get a whole lot more authoritarian than it is now, however, so the possibilities for change on this dimension are nearly all on the upside. (The emergence of a new authoritarian regime that is more aggressive abroad is also possible in both cases, but that topic is beyond the scope of this memo.)

Talk about the possibility of a wave of democratic reversals usually centers on the role China or Russia might play as either an agent of de-democratization or example of an alternative future. As noted above, though, both of these systems are currently facing substantial stresses at home. These stresses both limit their ability to act as agents of de-democratization and take the shine off any example they might set.

In short, I think that talk of Russia and China’s negative influence on the global democratization trend is overblown. Apart from the (highly unlikely) invasion and successful occupation of other countries, I don’t think either of these governments has the ability to undo democratization elsewhere. Both can and do help some other authoritarian regimes survive, however, and this is why regime crisis or breakdown in either one of them has the potential to catalyze new clusters of regime instability in their respective neighborhoods.

What do you think? If you made it this far and have any (polite) reactions you’d like to share, please leave a comment.

Observing and Understanding Social Unrest in Real Time

Game theoretic models of social unrest often represent governments and oppositions as unitary actors engaged in a sequence of moves involving binary choices. At any given time, an opposition can keep playing by the rules or choose to protest. If the opposition chooses to protest, the government can respond by conceding to protesters’ demands or repressing them. If the government represses, protesters can respond by dissipating or escalating. Ditto for the government on its next turn, and so on until either one side wins decisively or a bargain is struck that lets everyone get back to “normal” politics.

That class of models can and has produced important insights into the absence, occurrence, and dynamics of social unrest. At the same time, those models deliberately bracket some of the most interesting and arguably important aspects of social unrest—that is, the politics occurring within those camps. “Government” and “opposition” are shorthand for large assemblages of diverse individuals, each making his or her own choices under different circumstances and with different information. The interactions summarized in those formal models depend on—are constituted by—the actions and interactions occurring at this lower, or “micro,” level.

That micro level is harder to understand, but it’s what we actually see when we observe these eventful periods up close in real time. The ongoing occupation of parts of central Hong Kong—which, yes, is still happening, even if it has mostly fallen out of the international news stream—offers a case in point. As Chris Buckley and Alan Wong describe in today’s New York Times, protesters in Hong Kong right now are openly and self-consciously struggling to make one of those strategic choices. Here’s how Buckey and Wong describe the efforts to escalate:

Most mornings for weeks, in one of the pro-democracy protest camps here, Wong Yeung-tat has berated, mocked and goaded the government and, increasingly, the student protest leaders and democratic politicians he deems too timid.

“The occupy campaign needs to be taken to a new level,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable”…

Mr. Wong’s organization, Civic Passion, and a tangle of like-minded groups, Internet collectives and free-floating agitators have grown impatient with the milder path supported by most protesters. They argue that only stronger action, such as new occupations, can force concessions from the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party.


Mainstream protesters fear confrontational tactics could tear the movement apart and anger ordinary residents, many already tiring of the protest camps.

“It will be difficult to narrow the differences,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labor Party, who has been castigated by the movement’s more zealous wing. “We have already escalated to a high point. If it would further alienate public opinion, then that’s something we don’t want to see.”

Through Buckley and Wong’s eyes, we see the participants standing at the figurative fork in the road—or, if you like, the node in the decision tree. And, as protesters argue and experiment their way toward a phase shift of one form or another, the government does the same. We usually don’t get to witness much of the government’s internal debating, but their tactical experiments are easy to spot, and Hong Kong is no exception on that front, either.

We still aren’t very good at understanding exactly how those decisions get made or predicting how the larger process will unfold. We are, however, pretty good at recognizing some of the patterns that comprise these episodes (which are themselves figments of our theoretical imaginations, but still). In fact, the dynamic unfolding in Hong Kong right now is very much like what Sidney Tarrow described in Power in Movement (p. 24):

The power to trigger sequences of collective action is not the same as the power to control or sustain them. This dilemma has both an internal and an external dimension. Internally, a good part of the power of movements comes from the fact that they activate people over whom they have no control. This power is a virtue because it allows movements to mount collective actions without possessing the resources that would be necessary to internalize a support base. But the autonomy of their supporters also disperses the movement’s power, encourages factionalism and leaves it open to defection, competition and repression.

The similarity between that description and the evolution of the unrest in Hong Kong implies that we can sketch the causal terrain with some confidence, even if we can’t reliably predict exactly how social forces will flow through it each time.

Naturally, though, we still wonder: how will it turn out? Historical base rates imply that the factions advocating more aggressive tactics probably won’t tip the larger crowd toward escalation, and even if they do, that crowd will probably fail to achieve its objectives, at least in the short term. If I had to make a prediction, I would bet that this particular episode of unrest will conclude without having achieved any of its major demands. Still, base rates aren’t destiny, and if we already knew how this was going to turn out, it probably wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

On the Consumption of Protest Art in Real Time

Today’s New York Times carries a story describing efforts by “preservationists, historians and art lovers” to capture and share art produced by the ongoing occupations in Hong Kong:

Because most of the art is still on the streets, the archiving is largely digital. Some digital renditions and objects are already running alongside the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective, led partly by academics, is creating open-data platforms and Google maps to mark the locations of art pieces.

A new group—Umbrella Movement Art Preservation, or UMAP—has “rescue team members” on the ground, armed with cellphones and ready to mobilize volunteers to evacuate art on short notice. They have received offers of help from sympathetic truck drivers and about a dozen private galleries…

“It is all installation art,” said Mr. Wong of UMAP.

This process strikes me as unavoidably exploitative. The objects of this preservation campaign are art, but it is art that is meant to serve a specific and immediate political purpose. Removed from its original context and displayed online or in galleries, protest art becomes a form of found-object art. The “discovery” and display of these objects produces aesthetic and, in some cases, commercial value for its conveyors and consumers, but those returns are not shared with the original producers. Preservers, gallerists, and viewers inevitably engage in appropriation as well as appreciation.

More important, these preservation efforts give onlookers a way to enjoy the art without getting enmeshed in the politics. They treat the demonstrations as a creative performance, a kind of entertainment—”It is all installation art”—for the benefit of the viewer. In so doing, they implicitly ignore the strong political claims that this “performance” and the objects it generates are meant to produce.

The location of the original production is an essential part of its political meaning. The fact that it is confrontational and therefore dangerous to produce and display that art in those places is precisely what imbues it with any political power. By removing the art from that location, preservationists give distant onlookers a chance to enjoy the show without directly engaging in those politics. Politics is suffused with symbolic expression, but in situations like this one, the symbols are meant to serve a political purpose. When you try to separate the former from the latter, you implicitly ignore—and thus, in a fashion, reject—that purpose.

This rejection becomes less problematic, or at least less consequential, with the passage of time. When done in the moment, though, the decision to consume the aesthetic without engaging in the politics can have political consequences. “Wait, let me just move this sculpture out of the way before you smash everything to bits…” could imply that you care more about the sculpture than the people who produced it. More likely, it implies that you feel powerless to help defend those producers. I imagine that neither of those messages is particularly encouraging to the protesters or discouraging to those who would do the smashing.

I arguably engage in a related form of exploitation in my own work. My trade is explaining and forecasting political calamities that often involve substantial human suffering. To make my work more credible, I avoid public advocacy or activism on the topics and cases I study. So, I am finding and exploiting commercial value in the actions and suffering of others while adopting a public posture of indifference to that suffering. I’m not sure what to do with that fact right now, but I thought it only fair to acknowledge it in a post that scolds others for the same.

The Ghosts of Wu Chunming’s Past, Present, and Future

On a blogged recommendation from Chris Blattman, I’m now reading Factory Girls. Written by Leslie T. Chang and published in 2008, it’s a non-fiction book about the young migrant women whose labor has stoked the furnaces of China’s economic growth over the past 30 years.

One of the book’s implicit “findings” is that this migration, and the larger socioeconomic transformation of which it is a part, is a difficult but ultimately rewarding process for many. Chang writes (p. 13, emphasis in the original):

Migration is emptying villages of young people. Across the Chinese countryside, those plowing and harvesting in the fields are elderly men and women, charged with running the farm and caring for the younger children who are still in school. Money sent home by migrants is already the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China. Yet earning money isn’t the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank ‘seeing the world,’ ‘developing myself,’ and ‘learning new skills’ as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out from home, but idleness. Plots of land are small and easily farmed by parents; nearby towns offer few job opportunities. There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.

That idea fits my priors, and I think there is plenty of system-level evidence to support it. Economic development carries many individual and collective costs, but the available alternatives are generally worse.

Still, as I read, I can’t help but wonder how much the impressions I take away from the book are shaped by selection bias. Like most non-fiction books written for a wide audience, Factory Girls blends reporting on specific cases—here, the experiences of certain women who have made the jump from small towns to big cities in search of paid work—with macro-level data on the systemic trends in which those cases are situated. The cases are carefully carefully and artfully reported, and it’s clear that Chang worked on and cared deeply about this project for many years.

No matter how hard the author tried, though, there’s a hitch in her research design that’s virtually impossible to overcome. Chang can only tell the stories of migrants who shared their stories with her, and these sources are not a random sample of all migrants. Even worse for attempts to generalize from those sources, there may be a correlation between the ability and desire to tell your story to a foreign reporter and the traits that make some migrants more successful than others. We don’t hear from young women who are too ashamed or humble or disinterested to tell their stories to a stranger who wants to share them with the world. We certainly can’t hear from women who have died or been successfully hidden from the reporter’s view for one reason or another. If the few sources who open up to Chang aren’t representative of the pool of young women whose lives she aims to portray, then their stories won’t be, either.

An anecdote from Wu Chunming, one of the two young women on whom the book focuses, stuck in my mind as a metaphor for the selection process that might skew our view of the process Chang means to describe. On pp. 46-47, Chang writes:

Guangdong in 1993 was even more chaotic than it is today. Migrants from the countryside flooded the streets looking for work, sleeping in bus stations and under bridges. The only way to find a job was to knock on factory doors, and Chunming and her friends were turned away from many doors before they were hired at the Guotong toy factory. Ordinary workers there made one hundred yuan a month, or about twelve dollars; to stave off hunger, they bought giant bags of instant noodles and added salt and boiling water. ‘We thought if we ever made two hundred yuan a month,’ Chunming said later, ‘we would be perfectly happy.’

After four months, Chunming jumped to another factory, but left soon after a fellow worker said her cousin knew of better jobs in Shenzhen. Chunming and a few friends traveled there, spent the night under a highway overpass, and met the girl’s cousin the next morning. He brought them to a hair salon and took them upstairs, where a heavily made-up young woman sat on a massage bed waiting for customers. Chunming was terrified at the sight. ‘I was raised very traditionally,’ she said. ‘I thought everyone in that place was bad and wanted me to be a prostitute. I thought that once I went in there, I would turn bad too.’

The girls were told that they should stay and take showers in a communal stall, but Chunming refused. She walked back down the stairs, looked out the front door, and ran, abandoning her friends and the suitcase that contained here money, a government-issued identity card, and a photograph of her mother…

‘Did you ever find out what happened to the friends you left behind in the hair salon?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if it was a truly bad place or just a place where you could work as a massage girl if you wanted. But it was frightening that they would not let us leave.’

In that example, we hear Wu’s side of this story and the success that followed. What we don’t hear are the stories of the other young women who didn’t run away that day. Maybe the courage or just impulsiveness Chunming showed in that moment is something that helped her become more successful afterwards, and that also made her more likely to encounter and open up to a reporter.

Chang implicitly flags this issue for us at the end of that excerpt, and she explicitly addresses it in a “conversation” with the author that follows the text in my paperback edition. Still, Chang can’t tell us the versions of the story that she doesn’t hear. In social-scientific jargon, those other young women left behind at the hair salon are the unobserved counterfactuals to the optimistic narrative we get from Chunming. A more literary soul might describe those other girls as the ghosts of Wu Chunming’s past, present, and future. Unlike Dickens’ phantoms, though, these other lives actually happened, and yet we still can’t see them.

In a recent blog post, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about the relationship between a project’s research design and the inferences we can draw from it:

Research methods, a topic that is seemingly so dry, are the heart and soul of knowledge. Most data supports more than one theory. This does NOT mean all data supports all theories: rather, multiple explanations can fit one set of findings. Choosing the right underlying theory, an iterative process that always builds upon itself, requires thinking hard on how data selection impacts findings, and how presentation of findings lends itself to multiple theories, and how theories fit with existing worldviews, and how better research design can help us distinguish between competing explanation.

A good research project consciously grapples with these.

Like the video Tufekci critiques in her essay, Chang’s book is a research project. Factory Girls is a terrific piece of work and writing, but those of us who read it with an eye toward understanding the wider processes its stories are meant to represent should do so with caution, especially if it confirms our prior beliefs. I hope that economic development is mostly improving the lives of young women and men in China, and there is ample macro-level evidence that it is. The stories Chang relates seem to confirm that view, but a little thinking about selection effects suggests that we should expect them to do that. To really test those beliefs, we would need to trace the life courses of a wider sample of young women. As is often happens in social science, though, the cases most important to testing our mental models are also the hardest to see.

Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance

“People power” is a blunt and in some ways soft instrument. Activists engaged in mass protest are usually seeking formal changes in the rules or leadership of organizations to which they do not belong or in which their votes are not counted. Unfortunately for them, there is no clear or direct mechanism for converting the energy of the street into the production of those changes.

Once nonviolent action begins, however, state repression becomes a blunt instrument, too. The varied and often discreet routines states use to prevent challenges from emerging become mostly irrelevant. Instead, states must switch to a repertoire of clumsier and less familiar actions with larger and more immediate consequences.

The awkwardness of this response turns out to be the mechanism that converts people power into change, or at least the possibility for it. States thrive on routines around which they can build bureaucracies and normalize public expectations. Activists who succeed at mobilizing and sustaining mass challenges force the state onto less familiar footing, where those bureaucracies’ routines don’t apply and public expectations are weakly formed. In so doing, activists instill uncertainty in the minds of officials who must respond and of the observers of these interactions.

Responses to that uncertainty don’t always break in favor of the challengers, but they can. Insiders who comfortably played supporting roles before must consider what will happen to them if the challenge succeeds and how they might shape that future in their own favor. Other observers, foreign and domestic, may become newly energized or at least sympathetic, and even small alterations in the behaviors of those individuals can accumulate into large changes in the behavior of the public writ large. Importantly, these responses are more likely to break in favor of the challengers when those challengers manage to sustain nonviolence, even in the face of state repression.

Activists cannot control the reactions catalyzed by this uncertainty, but neither can the state. The result is an opportunity, a roll of the dice that would not have happened in the absence of the public challenge. And, really, that’s the point. That opportunity is not a sufficient condition for deep change, but it is a necessary one, and it almost never arises without a provocation.

How the Umbrella Revolution Could Win

I’m watching Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” from afar and wondering how an assemblage of unarmed students and professionals might succeed in wresting change from a dictatorship that has consistently and ruthlessly repressed other challenges to its authority for decades. I have already said that I expect the state to repress again and think it unlikely that China’s Communist regime will bend sharply or break in response to this particular challenge at this particular moment. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible, and, like many observers, I hope for something better.

How could something better happen? For me, Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections remains the single most-useful source on this topic. In that 2005 book, Schock compares successful and failed “people power” movements from the late twentieth century to try to identify patterns that distinguish the former from the latter. Schock clearly sympathizes with the nonviolent protesters whose actions he describes, but that sympathy seems to motivate him to make his analysis as rigorous as possible in hopes of learning something that might inform future movements.

Schock’s overarching conclusion is that structure is not destiny—that movement participants can improve their odds of success through the strategies and tactics they choose. In this he echoes the findings of his mentors, who argued in a 1996 book (p. 15) that “movements may be largely born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own actions.” Schock’s theoretical framework is also openly influenced by the pragmatic advocacy of Gene Sharp, but his analysis confirms the basic tenets of that approach.

So, which strategies and tactics improve the odds of movement success? On this, Schock writes (p. 143, emphasis added):

The trajectories of unarmed insurrections are shaped by the extent to which interactions between challengers, the state, and third parties produce shifts in the balance of power. The probability that an unarmed insurrection will tip the balance of power in favor of the challengers is a function of its resilience and leverage. By remaining resilient in the face of repression and effecting the withdrawal of support from or pressure against the state through its dependence relations, the state’s capacity to rule may be diminished, third-party support for the movement may be mobilized, and the coherence of the political or military elite may fracture, that is, the political context may be recast to one more favorable to the challenge.

Resilience refers to the movement’s capacity to keep mobilizing and acting in the face of attempts to repress or disperse it. Leverage refers to the movement’s ability to get constituencies on whose support the regime depends—security forces, local business and political leaders, labor groups, sometimes foreign governments and markets—to support their cause, either directly, through participation or the provision of other resources, or indirectly, through pressure on the regime to reform or concede.

On makes movements resilient, Schock’s analysis points (p. 143) to “decentralized yet coordinated organizational networks, the ability to implement multiple actions from across the three methods of nonviolent action [protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention], the ability to implement methods of dispersion as well as methods of concentration, and tactical innovation.”

Schock concludes his study with a list of six lessons that nonviolent challengers might draw from successes of the past about how to improve their own odds of success. Paraphrased and summarized, those six lessons are:

  • Set clear and limited goals. “The goals of movements should be well chosen, clearly defined, and understood by all parties to the conflict. The goals should be compelling and vital to the interests of the challenging group, and they should attract the widest possible support, both within society and externally… Precise goals give direction to the power activated by a movement and inhibit the dispersion of mobilized energies and resources.”
  • Adopt oppositional consciousness and build temporary organizations. “Oppositional consciousness is open-ended, nontotalizing, and respectful of diversity, and it facilitates the mobilization of a broad-based opposition.” Oppositional consciousness also “rejects permanent, centralized organizations and vanguard parties, opting for united front politics, shifting alliances, and temporary organizations that engage in struggles as situations arise.”
  • Engage in multiple channels of resistance. Here, Schock focuses on the value of pairing actions through institutional (e.g., elections) and non-institutional (e.g., street demonstrations) channels. In other words, attack on as many fronts as possible.
  • Employ multiple methods of nonviolent action. “Struggles for political change should not depend on a single event, however momentous, but rather should focus on the process of shifting the balance of political power through a range of mutually supporting actions over time.”
  • Act in multiple spaces and places of resistance. In addition to public rallies and demonstrations, activists can employ methods of non-cooperation (e.g., strikes and boycotts) and try to create “liberated areas” outside the state’s control. (Nowadays, these areas might exist online as well as in physical space.)
  • Communicate. “Communication among the challengers, accurate public knowledge about the movement, and international media coverage all increase the likelihood of success.”

Looking at the umbrella revolution through that lens, I’d say it is doing all of these things already—self-consciously, I would guess—and those actions seem to be having the desired effects of expanding local and international support for their movement and improving its resilience. Just today, the movement reiterated an ambitious but clear and limited set of goals that are positive and broadly appealing. Activists are working cooperatively through an array of organizations. They have built communications networks that are designed to withstand all but the most draconian attempts to shut them down. Participants are using the internet to spread knowledge about their movement, and a bevy of foreign reporters in Hong Kong are amplifying that message. The possible exception comes in the limited range of actions the movement is using. At the moment, the challenge seems to be heavily invested in the occupation of public spaces. That may change, however, as the movement persists or if and when it is confronted with even harsher repression.

More important, this uprising was not born last Friday. The longer arc of this challenge includes a much wider array of methods and spaces, including this summer’s referendum and the marches and actions of political and business elites that accompanied and surrounded them. As Jeff Wasserstrom described in a recent interview with Vox, the Occupy Central movement also connects to a longer history of pro-democracy dissent in Hong Kong under Beijing’s rule and beyond. In other words, this movement is much bigger and more deeply rooted than the occupations we’re witnessing right now, and it has already proved resilient to repeated attempts to quash it.

As Schock and Sharp and many others would argue, those shrewd choices and that resiliency do not ensure success, but they should improve prospects for it. Based on patterns from similar moments around the world in recent decades and the Communist Party of China’s demonstrated intolerance for popular challenges, I continue to anticipate that the ongoing occupations will soon face even harsher attempts to repress them than the relatively modest ones we saw last weekend. Perhaps that won’t happen, though, and if it does, I am optimistic that the larger movement will survive that response and eventually realize its goals, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,473 other followers

%d bloggers like this: