I Have No Idea What’s Going to Happen in China and Neither Do You

Posted: March 9, 2015 in Politics
Tags: , ,

By now, most China watchers have probably seen this piece by David Shambaugh cogently arguing that “the endgame of communist rule in China has begun.” If you want to see an equally cogent argument lead to a very different conclusion, you can see Arthur Kroeber’s piece from December about how Xi Jinping and his governing style are here to stay.

Both make for interesting reading, as do the countless other pundits who’ve made similar arguments on both sides of the CCP endurance question over the years. If they hadn’t wrapped all their interesting points together into a grand thesis predicting the future of the Communist Party, they would have been quite insightful. However, they did make rather firm conclusions, and that’s rather pointless. That’s because…

We really have no idea what’s going on in China right now

In November 2011, The Telegraph ran an exclusive report on a self-immolation that had happened in Tiananmen Square three weeks earlier. The paper only learned of it when they received a photo from a British tourist who’d been there and was surprised he hadn’t yet seen anything about it in the news. Despite the hundreds of people who’d been present snapping their own photos, no record of the incident could be found anywhere in Chinese media, Weibo, or anywhere else. It happened in perhaps the most trafficked and photographed place in China, it was during the heyday of Weibo, and it was walking distance from where hundreds of foreign correspondents were stationed. And yet, we just narrowly missed never hearing about it at all. It makes you wonder how many important things we are missing completely in China.

Hundreds of the best foreign correspondents in the world are stationed in China (the lion’s share based in Beijing, with most of the rest in Shanghai), but unfortunately they have no hope of collectively reporting more than a very small fraction of the important things happening in the country every day. They’re a few hundred covering 1.35 billion people living across 3.7 million square miles. There are of course Chinese journalists and netizens finding things out, but self-censorship and multiple levels of government censorship stop a lot of that from ever reaching the outside world’s comprehension. And a lot of the trends that could influence the CCP’s survival are simply unknowable.

How stable is the financial system? How significant are the hundreds of thousands of annual “mass incidents?” What exactly is going on behind closed doors at Zhongnanhai? How much is corruption affecting the military’s capability and loyalties? Is there any threat of some public grievance gaining collective appeal among different social groups? What questions are we not even thinking to ask? The Communist Party is in a better position than anyone to know these things, but even it’s probably clueless on a lot of these big questions. Things get garbled through five levels of government bureaucracy while hundreds of thousands of personal interests obscure things for their own purposes before they have any hope of being digested accurately. Despite the enormous strides in reporting and communication, we’re still very much in the dark. Which is why…

We have even less hope of possibly knowing what will happen in the future

After Bo Xilai’s sensational purge in 2012, many China-watchers (myself included) presumed that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee would take a turn toward the more liberal wing of the CCP. Then Ling Jihua’s son got in a Ferrari accident and New York Times exposed Wen Jiabao’s family wealth, making a mockery of any predictions on the PBSC’s composition. Totally unforeseen events (that we still don’t fully understand) changed everything, which should itself have been foreseeable.

That was just one small arena of Chinese politics. Imagine the present day stable of China pundits being transported back to 1986 and trying to predict what would happen over the next five years (then repeat that exercise with 1976, 1966, 1956 and 1946). Let’s even help them out a bit and presume they have access to all the information the CCP did. Does anyone honestly believe any of them could have predicted anything resembling what actually unfolded? If not, why should we think they’re any more capable today?

Political winds can shift on a dime in China, influenced by completely unforeseeable variables. The Tiananmen movement, for instance, was the result of dozens of different incidents and trends that came together in a perfect storm. Alter any one of those variables slightly, and things could have turned out very differently. You can conscientiously gather every bit of information available, every apparent trend and make a conclusion about where China is headed. Then something will almost certainly happen tomorrow that rips your thesis to shreds.

Perhaps either Shambaugh’s or Kroeber’s prediction will ultimately be proven “correct,” but that doesn’t mean it was a good prediction. If someone is tasked with predicting a coin toss, they could analyze the wind, the person tossing, the texture of the ground, and all sorts of other random variables. But whatever system of analysis they come up with will be utterly lacking. Perhaps someday a computer system will be able to meaningfully sort these variables, but it’s beyond any human’s capabilities. So even if the coin is tossed and their prediction is correct, that doesn’t make them a proficient coin toss analyst. Crass as the analogy may be, CCP soothsaying is similarly an exercise in futility that’s made fools of many “experts.”

But prediction sells. It’s harder to get media outlets to give you op-ed space or air time if you just say “things are complicated and we don’t really know what’s going to happen.” Making a bold prediction gets noticed and it has little downside (especially if you hedge, as Shambaugh did, without giving a deadline on it). Gordon Chang, perhaps the most extreme example, has set several firm deadlines on his CCP collapse theory that have turned out utterly wrong. And yet, he still enjoys “China expert” status along with regular columns and TV appearances.

Whether the Communist Party will survive or collapse in the short-term is THE question in China, so it’s not surprising that we see pieces arguing both sides. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the possibilities, and it’s certainly worth tracking events and trends that could influence this question. But when I see someone pulling an arbitrary set of indicators together to make a grand conclusion, I take it with an enormous grain of salt. You should too.

  1. sifan says:

    We do know some things though, we know that the Chinese economic boom is coming to an end and that the younger generation is very different to Xi’s generation. We don’t know to what extent a weak conomy will undermine the CCP will but we can be pretty sure that when the post 1990s generation finally get to power will be a lot less authoritarian. We also know that dictatorships always collapse in the end.

  2. SKS says:

    Normally I’d agree with this assessment WRT China predictions on the whole, but it belies a lack of familiarity with Shambaugh and his previous work. The reason why his essay is garnering such considerable attention is not the prediction he makes (plenty of others have already made it) or the pillars of his argument (nothing groundbreaking to be found there), it’s the mere fact that David Shambaugh is the one making this argument.

    Until the past year or so, Shambaugh had strenuously avoided peddling in the China prediction game. His books, his articles, his lectures have essentially all followed the same basic approach: leverage his considerable knowledge of the country to assess either its history or its as-is state, not its future.

    And that’s why his piece is so momentous. I don’t happen to agree with his conclusions, but the fact that he is the one making this argument is huge. He’s gambling an entire career’s worth of reputation and clout on a Gordon Chang-esque position. How/why is he now making this argument? That’s the highly compelling mystery for now.

    I have to assume that, given his notoriously wide and intimate relationships with official China, he must know some very interesting things that other China watchers do not. That suspicion isn’t enough to sway me into agreement with his opinion, but it is certainly more than enough to get my attention and make me question my own position. And for that reason alone, his essay carries enormous value.

    • sinostand says:

      I’m not saying his essay doesn’t have value and isn’t incredibly interesting. I’m just saying we should all take its conclusion with an enormous grain of salt, because no matter how well-informed Shambaugh is, there’s no way he can know that.

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  11. foarp says:

    Still no idea Eric? I think things may have become a bit more clear in the last month or so. Looking forward to a post on latest developments.

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