Does China Want Change?

(Ed.: The following is a guest post by Rory Truex, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale University. Rory is currently conducting field work in China.)

Among China watchers, there is an ever-louder group of voices singing the imminent downfall of the country’s political system. The chorus goes something as follows: “The faux representation afforded by the National People’s Congress, the empty channels for public participation, the meaningless village elections— these shell institutions do little to stem the CCP’s growing legitimacy deficit. Protests are already on the rise. Sooner or later, something will happen and the people will rise up and demand real democracy. It’s only a matter of time.”

For many in the prediction game, that time has already come and gone, or it is rapidly approaching. In 2001, Gordon Chang predicted The Coming Collapse of China, asserting that underperforming loans would break China’s financial system and trigger the fall of the CCP within a decade. In a 2011 editorial, Chang revised his estimates to say that the system would fall within one year’s time. This has also proven false. In 1996, Henry Rowen used economic data to predict that China will become democratic “around the year 2015.”

Perhaps the reason the “fall of China” prediction has fallen flat to date is that it rests on the notion that Chinese citizens actually want a new political system. A simple glance at the data, or simple discussions with a few citizens, would make us reconsider this assumption.
Confidence in Government (World Values Survey)

The figure above shows summary data from the fourth wave (2005-2008) of the World Values Survey (WVS). Among other attitudinal questions, the WVS asks respondents their level of confidence in their government on a four-point scale. The bars reflect the fraction of respondents responding “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” With the exception of Vietnam, Chinese citizens voice greater support of their government than any other country in the world.

Of course, we should take this fact with an oversized grain of salt. Cross-national surveys of this sort are notoriously bad and suffer from a host of biases— incomparable sampling procedures, poor translations, different cultural interpretations of question wordings, among others. Most importantly, respondents living in repressive political contexts— like China and Vietnam, for example— may be unwilling to voice their true opinions when asked sensitive questions about government. It may be that Chinese citizens have confidence in the CCP, or it may be that fear leads them to systematically bias their answers.

At the risk of sounding like a party mouthpiece, my guess is that the truth is probably closer to the former than we would like to believe. China scholars have long documented that Chinese citizens have a deep reservoir of trust in “the Center.” Many ostensibly subversive activities— protests, non-compliance with rules, petitions— are actually ways for citizens to communicate their grievances to the central government, which is perceived as responsive. The “fall of China” crowd likes to point to rising protest figures as evidence of a desire for change, but the vast majority of protests have nothing to do with political reform. Peter Lorentzen has argued that the regime deliberately allows this “regularized rioting” to help monitor lower level cadres.

In the end, public opinion in authoritarian contexts is difficult to gauge, and so we are left trying to blend imperfect survey data with more impressionistic anecdotal evidence. To build my own impressions, I have taken to asking a simple, direct question among my closer Chinese friends.

If you could change China’s political system today, what would you do?

There is no shortage of demands— more transparency, more freedom of speech, an open media, unregulated internet— but I’m always struck by how often multi-party competition is missing from the list. When probed on this issue, most will give a reply of the sort “this is not appropriate for China.” Some will flip the conversation back at me and point to recent Congressional debacles over the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff. These events are smugly broadcasted by China’s state media outlets, and they undermine the very credibility of the American system. If this is what democracy is, we’ll stick with our one-party system, thank you very much.

So does China want change? It is impossible to know for sure, but there seems to be a societal current pushing for limited liberalizing political reforms. Full-blown multi-party democracy and the “coming collapse” of the CCP?

I’m not sure we should be singing that chorus just yet.


In Syria, Don’t “Give War a Chance”

Editor’s note: the following is a piece by The Smoke-Filled Room contributor Lionel Beehner that originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

News that the White House nixed a plan last summer to arm the Syrian rebels was attributed to election-year politics. But maybe the administration’s decision not to intervene was motivated by other impulses. On one hand, there is concern that the conflict in Syria could spill across its borders and export sectarian violence to neighbors like Jordan or Lebanon. On the other, there are those that might like to see a bludgeoned and weaker Syria emerge from the wreckage.

A weakened Syria, this theory goes, would mean less ability of Syria to carry out political assassinations in Lebanon, act as a conduit for arms for Hezbollah or home of groups like Hamas, and serve as an ally to Iran. War is bad, but there are undoubtedly some voices in Israel and the United States, among other places (like Turkey or Saudi Arabia), that might like to “give war a chance.” Or at least allow for a bit more bloodletting, the better to weaken Iran’s position in the region and prevent a postwar Syria – regardless of whether the rebels or regime emerges victorious – from continuing its prewar policies of being an exporter of instability. As Yitzhak Laor wrote last summer in Haaretz, “That’s why the United States is in no hurry to intervene … It’s looking for an effective dictatorship. Not another ‘Iraqi democracy.’ Meanwhile, let them bleed.”

In terms of the scale of bloodshed, Syria obviously does not compare to wartime Europe. But similar dynamics played out among some powers in the early 1940s that preferred to see Germany and the USSR bleed themselves to death, before intervening to end the war. Harry Truman, before he was president, proclaimed in 1941 that “if we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Similarly, after Lenin pulled Russia out of World War I, he said “In concluding a separate peace now, we rid ourselves…of both imperialistic groups fighting each other.”

The phrase “give war a chance,” of course, is a loaded one whose Balkans origins in the 1990s describe the interference of international peacekeepers to impose a settlement to temporarily staunch the bloodshed, but with the unintended consequence of allowing the warring parties to rearm and thus live to fight another day. Such an imposed peace does two things: It prevents the war from playing itself out to see a clear victor emerge; and it unwillingly extends the war by buying time for the belligerents to rest and rearm themselves. Andrew Tabler and Bilal Saab,writing in Foreign Affairs, have resurrected this phrase by suggesting that a decisive rebel victory should prevail over a negotiated settlement.

But that could last years, as the war ledger in Syria is unlikely to tip in the rebels’ favor barring greater international support. Outside of Ankara, there has been little clamoring for a military intervention, much less a more limited show of force, such as a Libya-style no-fly zone. Which is perplexing, given France’s recent successful, if limited, military intervention in Mali and NATO’s success in Libya at ridding the world of Qaddafi. Obviously both interventions were far from perfect (let’s not rehash Benghazi here). But one has to assume that powerful forces are blocking Western intervention in Syria, using the convenient straw-man argument that the Russians and Chinese are blocking any meaningful action in the UN Security Council (especially since such objections did not prevent NATO from intervening in Kosovo in May 1999). One has to conclude that there are privately held views that Syria should get the wrecking-ball treatment as a way of shifting the regional balance of power in favor of the United States and Israel and against Iran. Call it the St. Augustine strategy: Lord, make Syria peaceful, but not yet.

Of course, much in the region still remains in flux. For instance, it is unclear which side of the power ledger Iraq or Egypt falls, given that both are improving ties with Tehran. Would a Sunni-dominated Syria remain an ally of Iran or Hezbollah? Would it seek closer ties with Iraq? Also, what would Syrian-Israeli relations resemble, given Israel’s recent alleged bombing of a research facility outside of Damascus? Finally, up until the war began in March 2011, Syria’s relations with the US had been warming. Is Washington privately seeking a weakened Syria, regardless of who wins the war, in the hopes of keeping Syria out of Lebanon and denying Iran its most important ally in the region?

Nobody knows. The trouble with any kind of bloodletting policy is threefold: First, it is a form of collective punishment strategy, since the bulk of the victims are Syrian civilians, many of whom never favored the Assad’s killing of Lebanese politicians or partnering with Iran. Most Syrians I’ve met in my past visits seek warmer relations with the West, are suspicious of Iran, and do not wake up in the morning wishing Israel off the map or murmuring “Death to America.” Second, this kind of strategy could easily backfire, as it will only create resentment among those Syrians in the crosshairs of this war who we should be protecting, push them into the hands of Islamist, and needlessly radicalize them to be distrustful of us (and at worst, hate us). Third, as Thucydides warned, the longer a war drags on, the greater the chances for accidents or improbable events to occur. A devastated Syria might weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East in the near term, but the longer-term consequences could make the Syrian civil war a seminal event by virtue of its duration. Just as the long civil war after the fall of Saddam in 2003 ignited Shiite and Sunni tensions beyond Iraq’s borders, a similar dynamic and cycle of revenge killings could (and already is, to some degree) erupt in the region, the longer the war drags on.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the actual motivation of outside powers is that Syria, unlike Mali or Libya, is too messy a place to intervene on the cheap. Maybe there is a real sense that for a postwar government to have any legitimacy, the Syrian rebels should “own” the outcome and win the war themselves, rather than allow some English-speaking Syrian Chalabi-type being installed by the West. Maybe the Venn diagram of idealists and realists in Washington overlap on Syria – the latter not viewing the war as a vital security concern, while the former sees an intervention as having imperial overtones.

Beyond its obvious normative implications, such a strategy of letting the war play out to its end will invariably produce a bad outcome beyond our control, a postwar Syria of resentful citizens and ruined cities, and a regional dynamic that may or may not favor the balance of power in our favor. Nor is it clear that a weakened Syria, particularly if Assad remains in power, might not seek to intervene in places like Lebanon even more to settle old scores or distract Syrians from their postwar woes.

Hence, an 11th-hour intervention by the West after years of bloodletting will backfire. We should seek to end the war immediately, not after Syria is reduced to ruin, even if there is no clear victor.

Not Your Father’s Suicide Terrorism…

… if your father’s name is Robert Pape.

Friday, February 1, witnessed two notable suicide terrorist attacks in quick succession. Both were bad news for Robert Pape’s theory of suicide terrorism, which argues that suicide terrorism is almost always the result of foreign occupation, whether real or imagined. Pape finds that suicide terrorism is employed by ethno-national or religious groups that perceive themselves as being occupied by an outside group, particularly if other types of violence have failed and if the occupying force is a democratic state (see herehere, and here). This answer fits in nicely—perhaps too nicely—with realist skepticism of George W. Bush’s interventionism. Why shouldn’t you invade places? Reason #207: People will blow themselves up. As Pape and James Feldman argue in a 2008 book, “To stop and reverse the recent explosion of suicide terrorism, it is important to reduce the reliance on foreign occupation as a principal strategy for ensuring national interests.”

But why was Friday bad for this theory? While it is still too early to know why the suicide bomber detonated himself at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the Marxist group that claimed responsibility apparently condemned Turkish support of anti-Assad forces in Syria. That sentence reads like a bad geopolitical “Mad Libs,” but it doesn’t sound like Pape’s theory. Also occurring on Friday (and in my opinion, more problematic for Pape) was yet another suicide bombing in Pakistan where Sunni extremists attacked Shi’as. This has happened repeatedly over the last few years, and whatever the poor Shi’a in Pakistan are, they are not foreign occupiers. (The same case could be made for the Barelvis and Sufis who are periodically targeted by members of the more orthodox Deobandi Sunni movement).

Pakistan was already a problematic case for Pape given its non-occupied nature and its sky-rocketing rate of suicide terrorism from 2001 to 2010. (The chart below is drawn from Pape’s Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.) Pape’s counterargument has been that because Pakistanis feel that their government is merely a puppet of the United States, the suicide bombing campaign can be interpreted as one against the “indirect occupation” of the United States. While this line of reasoning may certainly explain attacks against the Pakistani state, police, or military, it cannot explain the soaring anti-Shi’a violence. It is basically impossible to construct a narrative where Sunni extremists perceive themselves as occupied by the Shi’a minority.


I think Pape has made the mistake of treating suicide terrorism as a static phenomenon when, in fact, it is evolving. Suicide terrorism has grown much, much more common over the last twenty years, while the level of foreign occupation has remained fairly constant. While not a perfect indicator, one that I have on hand is the percentage of terrorist groups that engage in suicide attacks over time. I have modified data from Michael Horowitz to construct this suicide terrorist “market share” variable, which is just the number of groups employing suicide tactics divided by the total number of terrorist groups in Horowitz’s data.


If suicide terrorism is becoming more ubiquitous, there is no reason to expect that old predictors will remain valid. Imagine if you had a perfect model of who purchased computers in the 1960s and used it to predict consumers today. You would go out of business. The cauldron of the 1981-1983 Lebanon civil war produced modern suicide terrorism. There is no reason to assume that a phenomenon that is only thirty years old will remain the same, nor its causes stay constant over time. Friday’s gruesome attacks are a reminder of that.

David Cameron and Centrifugal Crises

British Prime Minister David Cameron made waves in late January when he announced plans to hold a referendum on the U.K.’s continued membership in the European Union. Should the Conservatives win elections in 2015, Cameron promised a simple “in or out” referendum on E.U. membership by 2017.  The move seems to have roots in domestic politics. Cameron faces considerable pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his own party as well as a challenge from the UK Independence Party, which has been surging along the Conservatives’ political flank.

This all raises the prospect that, absent Conservative defeat or a Europhilic turn on the part of the British public, one of the core members (and key funders) of the E.U. could make an ungraceful exit in the coming years. In the long term, this could prove a greater threat to the viability of the European project than the economic woes of more peripheral members like Greece and Spain.

Labour leader Ed Miliband sharply criticized the proposal and hardened his own opposition to such a step (though support from some of his backbenchers may be shaky). Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are members of the Conservative governing coalition, dissented sharply as well. Heads of state in Europe did not react warmly to the news, nor to the strong-arm tactics it represents. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Cameron’s brinksmanship could backfire: “It reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff says at one point as he holds a gun to his own head: ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out.’ You want to watch out that one of the 26 [other EU member states] doesn’t just say: ‘OK, go ahead.'”

Extra points for the Mel Brooks reference, and for having the good sense not to repeat the quote verbatim.

Cameron’s move seems risky, but makes sense in light of both domestic and international factors. In addition to shoring up cracks in his governing coalition, his announcement seems designed to increase his leverage in upcoming negotiations over the E.U. budget. Cameron himself is not a hard Eurosceptic, but his support for a pro-Europe vote in any future referendum has now been made implicitly contingent on his receiving an acceptable offer from his counterparts on the continent. By publicly committing to a referendum, Cameron presents Paris, Berlin and Brussels with the choice of either buying British support for a “yes” vote or hoping that the Conservatives lose the next election. How palatable they’ll find either option remains an open question.

That being said, Brian Taylor points out that the Tories may be undermining their position on the question of Scottish sovereignty:

They have said that the [Scottish National Party] cannot guarantee Scottish membership of the EU, post independence.

The Nationalists have, of course, contested that vigorously but, at the very least, the issue gained some traction.

Now what do the Tories say on this topic?

Reject the SNP, stick with the UK – and we will offer you the prospect that a vote across the whole of these islands may take you out of the EU, perhaps in contradistinction to opinion in Scotland.

In a bid to reassert the economic and political autonomy of Britain, then, the Tories could end up actually weakening the British state.

Whatever the outcome, this episode highlights the contradictory and self-undermining nature of elite responses to the ongoing economic crisis in Europe. Years of austerity, some of it imposed at the encouragement or insistence of Brussels, have made the financial burdens of European integration heavier for the continent’s economic core. At the same time they have constricted recovery and led to anemic growth, high unemployment, and prolonged economic misery.

It would be naive to say that say that such conditions “cause” nationalist or parochial backlash, but the economic crisis does seem to be having centrifugal effects on multiple fronts.

On the one hand, it puts sustained pressure on the political and economic bargains that make the E.U. viable. Though not a member of the Eurozone, Britain is a major net donor to the E.U. (see chart from Le Monde, below) and the third largest economy in Europe. Its departure would represent a major shock to the institution.

EU Contributions; Le Monde

On the other hand, the crisis has intensified sub-national fissures in a number of member states. Separatist and nationalist movements in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders have all seen their fortunes improve since the onset of the crisis. They present an interesting twist on what Frederick Solt calls “new-nations” theories of economic distress and nationalism (see Brown, Hechter and Brass). In their simplest forms, such theories predict sub-national mobilization by groups that are materially deprived relative to society at large. Relative deprivation is key.  Here, though, nationalist grievances have coalesced around a different narrative. Separatist elites have made hay over the uneven financial burdens imposed by ‘society at large’ on local prosperity. As movements, they seek to protect the fruits of relative affluence rather than overcome relative deprivation.

Recent developments in the U.K. suggest how these super-national and sub-national crises of legitimacy could become mutually reinforcing. The specter of an E.U. exit undermines confidence in the national state’s position as a point of access to European markets and institutions. This in turn raises the stakes of regional separatist politics by sharpening the distinction between national and European alignment.

Cameron may well be able to balance these competing interests for the moment. Acute though the current crisis may be, the institutional roots of both the E.U. and the United Kingdom run deep, and continue to reflect considerable elite and popular consensus. That said, centrifugal pressures across the region seem unlikely to abate until Europe can return to robust and broadly shared growth, something which the broader policies of recent years have done much to forestall.

Wanted: A Few Good Experts on African ‘Chaos’

Experts on North and West Africa are hard to find. When Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire squared off over the presidency in 2011, for example, the coverage of the conflict was found lacking. Previously in 2005 there was a coup in Mauritania, and I remember being at my old job at the Council on Foreign Relations, scrambling to find a Mauritania expert. Now that Mali has heated up, I did a quick Lexis-Nexis scan of a few bylines who have written recently on the uprising there. Virtually none of them has published a thing on Mali in the past few years, either because of out-to-lunch editors or because their expertise is a chameleon-like thing that gravitates toward conflict (A welcome exception is Mike McGovern, whose work on West Africa is exemplary). Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations even singled out the Sahel as evidence that ungoverned territories do not brew terrorism. Consider this gem from 2010:

For years, observers warned that Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad were gravely at risk. And yet the extreme ideology of al-Qaeda has failed to resonate with the region’s population, most of whom practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Despite weak institutions, vast un-policed territories, and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge as “the next Afghanistan.”

Oops (In fairness, Patrick’s overall point is something I largely agree with – that we often overreact to ungoverned spaces). The trouble, as I see it, is that chaos tends to breed not just extremism but also bad commentary – Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy is 224 pages of evidence of this annoying trend. In the early 1990s Richard Holbrooke described the emerging chaos in Somalia as “Vietmalia.” In the 2000s, Niall Ferguson called the chaotic and increasingly symbiotic relationship between Beijing and Washington “Chimerica.” Now we are being told that Mali is descending into what The Economist has termed “Afrighanistan” (Et tu, Economist?)

Notice a pattern? The world’s most prized minds on geopolitics have reduced the world’s problems into poppy headline-friendly phrases that launched a thousand think-tank brownbags. To be sure, the world looks increasingly complex – um, Tourags are whom again? Assyrians are not the same thing as Syrians? – and so these handy phrases can help explain difficult policy conundrums to a lay audience. They also dovetail with a larger trend in our pop culture of slapping two words together – “Ginormous,” “frenemy,” etc. – which is not all that atypical in world history textbooks – after all, “Eurasia” is a real part of the globe.

The trend of slapping two countries’ names together and calling it a clever solution comes from several forces. First, the pressure-cooker environment among experts and authors to coin new phrases, to sell books, and to be invited on the speaking circuit. “Offshore Balancing Against China’s Emergent Regional Hegemony in the South China Sea” is a less sexy title and less likely to get you a TED invitation than calling the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia our “Japanamericapinestralia”. Our Americas policy increasingly resembles a case of “Cubexazuela” (our primary interests are Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela). Trans-Atlantic relations can best be defined as Frermanitain (the club of France, Germany and Great Britain). And our approach toward Africa resembles a “Malgerisomaliopiabokoharamakenyongod’ivoire.” (I know it rolls off the tongue.)

Such neologisms are distracting and dumb down the debate of such areas of the world. Not only are they distortion of the reality on the ground, but they insult our intelligence by oversimplifying complex events. Which may explain why they are met with scorn generally from insiders (see “AfPak,” which was not only confusing but also probably should have been inverted), and even full-fledged rejection by the authors themselves (Ferguson even distanced himself a few years later from his “Chimerica” phrase and predicted an “amicable divorce” between China and America). The trend shows the utter lack of imagination among practitioners and academics in the field. There hasn’t been a good catchy “End of History” or “Clash of Civilizations” phrase to define our current era. So foreign policy wonks throw everything they can up against a wall and see what sticks. Hence, Afrighanistan.

I shutter to think what will happen the next time a civil war pops up in some forgotten corner of the globe. Expect more lazy comparisons to Afghanistan.