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.

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Cats and Mice, Regimes and Oppositions

On Monday, Russian provocateur Alexei Navalny posted something on his English-language blog that caught my eye. Over the weekend, more than 100,000 Russians had gathered in a Moscow stadium to support President Putin’s re-election bid. You could forgive a Putin opponent for being disheartened by the scene, but where others might see these massive pro-Putin rallies, or “putings,” as signs of an impending defeat, Navalny saw opportunity:

All these putings are a great gift to us.

Look: 200 thousand people gather in one location. And 80 per cent of them are those very ‘people of the off-line’ whom we can’t reach via the Internet.

Now there’ll be no need to drop leaflets into mail boxes, or stick them in doorways, or hand them out near subway stations. They’ve gathered 200 thousand voters together in one place and nudged them to talk politics.

We are unaware whether they’re pro- or antiputinists, we only know that they’re employees of state-financed business or state-run companies.

And now it’s us who’re getting the inside track: these people have already faced the bold lie and hypocrisy of the Chief Thief Putin & Co. They know quite well that they’ve been forced to attend the rally. They know how they’ve been fixed. How they’ve been carried by buses. They’re discussing that “at the head office they’ve given the staff two compensatory days off, while at out branch, only one”. The’re discussing, “At Moscow Electric Power Co. they’ve been paid a 3000 roubles bonus for the rally, and we – 1500. What an outrage”.

200 thousand people as well as their families (one million all in all) know for sure how they’ve been gathered and delivered; yet at the rally they hear from the stage, “We’ve gathered here with our own motion, in order to support blah blah blah”, and afterwards they listen with a grin to TV reports: “Tens of thousands of excited Moscovites, as one man, have come to the rally”.

All this creates favourable conditions for anti- Crooks And Thieves’ campaign, as it would be carried out amid shamelessly foul play.

So in case there are volunteers to go to the puting and agitate against Putin there, that would be a great idea.

Navalny’s judo-like attempt to redirect the force of pro-Putin mobilization against the regime is a brilliant example of the creativity, learning, and strategic adaptation that makes political mobilization so interesting to study and yet so difficult to explain and predict.

For the sake of convenience (and, perhaps, sanity), social scientists usually think of the phenomena we study as occurring in independent “cases,” which can be analyzed, compared, and contrasted as distinct and largely independent episodes. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The USSR in the 1980s vs. China today. Democratization in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt.

This independence, however, is often an illusion born of our need to simplify in order to understand. That’s especially true for phenomena that involve rapid and deliberate imitation and adaptation. Marc Beissinger calls these “modular” phenomena, where modular refers to “action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others.” In his incisive analysis of the wave of “color” revolutions that swept the post-communist states in the 2000s, Beissinger points out that modular phenomena

present a challenge for social science theorizing, because the cross-case influences that in part drive their spread violate the assumption of the independence of cases that lies at the basis of much social scientific analysis…Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another. Not all social phenomena are modular, and Galton’s problem [of inferring causes from comparisons of interdependent cases] is not a universal one. But in a globalizing, electronic world in which local events are often monitored on a daily basis on the other side of the planet, the challenges posed to social scientific analysis by Galton’s problem (and by modular behavior in particular) are growing in many spheres of activity.

Beissinger goes on to show how modularity was evident not only in the diffusion of protest strategies and tactics across countries and over time, but also in the diffusion of authoritarian regimes’ responses to those protests:

Example exercises its effects not only on those who would look to it in support of change, but also on those who would potentially oppose it…Established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further…This is evident in the growing restrictions on civil society organizations in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan…Moreover, regimes have increasingly turned to manipulating elections without engaging in outright fraud, thereby avoiding aspects of the model that might fuel opposition mobilization…The role of democracy-promoting NGOs like Soros and Freedom House in fostering modular democratic revolution has also precipitated a backlash against them from a number of post-Soviet states, which have begun to view them as revolutionary organizations and to restrict their activities.

These processes of imitation and adaptation can be powerful enough to help popular uprisings overwhelm structural conditions that would seem to tilt heavily against them. At the same time, these processes can also help apparently frail authoritarian regimes stifle and survive those challenges. In an article in the latest issue of Democratization, Evgeny Finkel and Yitzhak M. Brudny see the Russian government’s response to the uprisings that happened around it in the 2000s as a quintessential example of successful authoritarian counter-adaptation. They write:

The colour revolutions, and especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, are widely perceived as major international setbacks to Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian events alarmed Russian elites, who feared the possibility of a local colour revolution during the 2007–2008 electoral cycle. To thwart the perceived colour revolution threat, Russian authorities adopted strategies that combined a political, administrative and intellectual assault on the opposition and Western ideas of democracy promotion. An integral part of this assault was, first, an attempt to create a mass youth movement, Nashi, as a counterweight to the various youth movements that were the driving forces behind the colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Second, it was an attempt to delegitimize the idea of liberal democracy itself, labelling it subversive and alien to the Russian national character.

That strategy seemed to work well for several years, but the reformist movement that has emerged in Russia in the past few months reminds us that these victories are never permanent. And, if Navalny’s blog post is any indication, the cunning regime is now confronting some equally shrewd opponents.

Political sociologists Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow see similar dynamics at play in protests against global trade and financial regimes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a fascinating recent paper, they write about the transnational diffusion not just of new forms of protest behavior, but also of police practices in response to them, and of the interplay between those two streams of learning. Intriguingly, the authors–two of the greats in the study of social movements–find that

the mechanisms that cause protester and police innovations to diffuse are remarkably similar, even though they can combine in different ways at different moments: promotion, the proactive intervention by a sender actor aimed at deliberate diffusion of an innovation; assessment, the analysis of information on past events and their definition as successes or failures, which leads to adaption of the innovation to new sites and situations; and theorization, the location of technical innovations within broader normative and cognitive frameworks.

As della Porta and Tarrow’s work shows, these dynamics are not unique to authoritarian regimes. Over at Plastic Manzikert, blogger Kelsey Atherton sees evidence of similar learning across police forces in their responses to Occupy encampments in the United States, and he thinks that learning helps explain why the movement has petered out.

What St. Louis did, more effectively and less violently than New York, was unoccupy it’s camp by taking advantage of protester exhaustion and finite capacity to respond. When one side plays nonviolent in the face of an aggressor, the contest becomes one of public perception. When the nonviolent protesters found themselves outmaneuvered by nonviolent police, there was no battle of public perception to be had. The violence and resistance of Zuccotti made for compelling media–unusual tactics, contended public space, seemingly out of proportion crackdown, and a clumsily aggressive handling of the situation made the action look brutal and the protesters come across more as heroic victims than the public menace the police needed them to be.

But without the violence, there isn’t that narrative. Polite, unthreatening police calmly restoring a public square in shirtsleeves de-escalate the scene, and manage to make protest the one thing it shouldn’t be: boring.

The global interplay of regimes and oppositions evident in all of these “cases” is a bit like a bunch of interconnected games of cat and mouse, all happening at the same time. Within each domain, each family of mice is busily trying to outwit its own cat, and each cat is  diligently trying to catch its own mice. All the while, though, the cats and the mice are learning from what happens everywhere else–sometimes just by watching, but other times by talking and conspiring and even lending a hand. Often that aid passes from mouse to mouse or cat to cat, but sometimes it’s the cat in one arena lending a hand to the mice in another, and vice versa. As communication and international organization get easier, the whole process only thickens and accelerates.

With this much interdependence at work, it’s no wonder we had such a hard time anticipating the Arab Spring (and the “color” revolutions that preceded it, and the collapse of communism that preceded it, and…). As social scientists, we can try to learn things from this latest wave that will help us anticipate where and when the next one will occur. As we do, though, we have to bear in mind that the potential agents of those future events will probably be learning and adapting and evolving even faster.

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