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.

Meanwhile,

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.

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China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

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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