China and Russia and What Could Have Happened

Twenty five years ago, I was strolling down Leningrad’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, with a clutch of other American undergraduates who had recently arrived for two months of intensive language study when Professor Edna Andrews dashed up to us with the news. “They’re shooting them,” she said (or something like it—who can trust a 25-year-old memory of a speech fragment?) with obvious agitation. “They’re shooting the students in Tiananmen Square!”

Had Edna not given us that news, we probably wouldn’t have heard it, or at least not until we got home. In 1989, glasnost’ had already come to the USSR, but that didn’t mean speech was free. State newspapers were still the only ones around, at least for those of us without connections to the world of samizdat. Some of those newspapers were more informative than others, but the limits of political conversation were still clearly proscribed. The Internet didn’t exist, and international calls could only be made by appointment from state-run locations with plastic phones in cubicle-like spaces and who-knows who listening while you talked. Trustworthy information still only trickled through a public sphere mostly bifurcated between propaganda and silence.

What’s striking to me in retrospect is how differently things could have turned out in both countries. When she gave us the news about Tiananmen, Edna was surely agitated because it involved students like the ones she taught being slaughtered. I suspect she was also distressed, though, because at the time it was still easy to imagine something similar happening in the USSR, perhaps even to people she knew personally.

In 1989, politics had already started to move in the Soviet Union, but neither democratization nor disintegration was a foregone conclusion. That spring, citizens had picked delegates to the inaugural session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in elections that were, at the time, the freest the USSR had ever held. The new Congress’ sessions were shown on live television, and their content was stunning. “Deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified,” Thomas Skallerup and James P. Nichol describe in their chapter for the Library of Congress’ Russia country study. “Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military.”

But the outspokenness of those reformist deputies belied their formal power. More than 80 percent of the Congress’ deputies were Communist Party members, and the new legislative body the deputies elected that summer, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was stuffed with “old-style party apparatchiks.” Two years later, reactionaries inside the government mounted a coup attempt in which President Gorbachev was arrested and detained for a few days and tanks were deployed on the streets of Moscow.

Tank near Red Square on 19 August 1991. © Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images

That August Putsch looks a bit clowny with hindsight, but it didn’t have to fail. Likewise, the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 uprising didn’t have to happen, or to succeed when it did. In a story published this week in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley describe the uncertainty of Chinese policy toward the uprising and the disunity of the armed forces tasked with executing it—and, eventually, the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“At the time,” Jacobs and Buckley write, “few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.” Seven senior commanders signed a petition calling on political leaders to withdraw the troops. Those leaders responded by disconnecting many of the special phones those commanders used to communicate with each other. When troops were finally given orders to retake the square “at any cost,” some commanders ignored them. At least one pretended that his battalion’s radio had malfunctioned.

As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their study of civil resistance, nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to succeed when they prompt defections by security forces. The Tiananmen uprising was crushed, but history could have slipped in many other directions. And it still can.

Principal-Agent Problems in the Perpetration of Mass Atrocities

Does military intervention affect civilian death tolls? Existing research has focused on international actors’ ability to limit ongoing slaughter, but has not examined their ability to prevent the emergence or escalation of such killing. I develop a theory of government killing that accounts not only for the government’s decision to kill civilians but also for the transference of the killing order from leader to perpetrator, and for the perpetrator’s implementation of that order. Focusing on the principal-agent relationship produces new expectations about the effects of military intervention on government killing. I find that international actors are well-equipped to limit civilian slaughter: Intervention supporting the government decreases the likelihood that a government orders civilians killed. Intervention against the government leads to a decrease in death tolls when killing occurs. Ultimately, supportive intervention is a useful means of preventing government killing, while oppositional intervention limits its escalation once it begins.

That’s the abstract from a really interesting paper by Jacqueline DeMerritt that’s forthcoming in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. It’s great to see someone pull together these seemingly disparate literatures—theories of political violence on the one hand and organization theory on the other—in search of better ways to think about addressing a profound and very real problem. Props to Erica Chenoweth and Daniel Solomon for calling it out on Twitter.

In hopes of seeing this project grow, whether in DeMerritt’s hands or someone else’s, here are two thoughts I had after reading the paper about directions in which this model could and should be stretched.

1. State agents are capable of initiating atrocities without orders from their leaders. For simplification’s sake, DeMerritt construes atrocities as something state leaders initiate and state agents may or or may not carry out. In fact, it’s not always clear who is leading whom in these situations, or if hierarchy is even a relevant concept. It would be useful to try to incorporate into the model the idea that committing atrocities can also be a form of “shirking” and see where that leads.

2. Time matters.The interactions represented in DeMerritt’s model occur repeatedly, and the outcomes of previous iterations shape incentives at later junctures. For example, once certain agents have committed some atrocities, we might expect the threat of future punishment to have a weaker effect on those agents’ later actions. In the miserably cold language of economics, the marginal expected cost of additional atrocities will often be lower than the expected cost of that initial leap. If the model is going to address the dynamics of violence against civilians and not just the question of whether or not they will occur, we’ll want to extend it to incorporate these kinds of path-dependent processes.

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