On Estimating the Probability of the End of the CCP Regime

I began my course on contemporary Chinese politics today with this.

As a China scholar, I am often asked variants of the following: “When is China going to democratize?” or “When will the CCP going to lose power?”

Perhaps, you are taking this class in order to learn the answer to such questions. Indeed, as students, you are liable to have friends ask you similar questions as soon as you reveal that you are taking a class on Chinese politics.

What happens next is what often happens when you are asked the same question over and over: you develop a patter, a canned response. Traditionally, I tend to avoid answering with a date, “June 4, 2017,” and instead interrogate the question, pointing out the differences that perhaps the questioner did not consider, “I think that the principal threat to the regime is not a democratic revolution but elite splits causing the end of the CCP regime but not the end of dictatorship in China.” As you might imagine, this reply is usually enough to count as an answer to the question.

But let’s say rather than avoid the question, we truly tried to answer it. How would we do so?

Clearly, it is important that the question be phrased appropriately so that it is obvious what is being predicted. A “when” question is out due to imprecision — “in 2017” “in June 2017” “at 12:00pm on June 2017, Beijing Standard Time” “before the robots attack and kill us all.”

The question should be thought of in terms of change happening in a given timeframe. Research by Tetlock and others show that expert predictions tend to disappear into noise when they venture outside of about 5 years. 2017, 2018. That being said, since humans have 10 fingers, we tend to prefer round numbers. 2020, 2030.

The question should be framed not as a yes or no response but as a probability. “Will the Chinese regime end by 2020” is clear but a bit too stark. “What is the likelihood that the Chinese regime will end by 2020” allows one to caveat but also to differentiate opinions in a much more fine grained manner. If I polled a class and found 15 students said no and 12 said yes, how do I think of those responses? On the other hand, if I polled 27 students and found that the mean likelihood was 40% with a standard deviation of 30%, that conveys much more information, especially because I could draw a confidence interval around those estimates, could look inside and see if there are a lot of people on either side of 50% or are predictions very confident at the poles of 0 or 100%.

A reasonable question, then, is “What is the likelihood that the Chinese Communist Party-led regime will end by Dec. 31, 2020?”

There are, of course, the details. What do we mean by “the Chinese regime ending”? What counts and what doesn’t? In a normal betting situation, it is clear if your side won or lost — the pair loses to three of a kind; the Miami Heat did in fact win the championship. The terms of the bet are clear. But what if in 2020, China has had internationally recognized free and fair elections (i.e. it appears democratic) but Xi Jinping won those elections and is the president of China? What if Liu Yuan or another PLA general took over the political leadership of the country by having their soldiers clear out Zhongnanhai but maintained that they were the truly Communist Party? What if the CCP loses a civil war and retreats to a nearby island but claims to rule the mainland? What if the Xi Jinping and his leadership team rebranded the CCP to become the People’s Party as they felt that the “Communist” label was becoming an unneeded distraction? One would need to lay out clear answers to these and other different scenarios.

Having thought through what a question would be and how different scenarios would be counted, we now need to consider how we would answer the question. What is the likelihood? What types of information would be important to consider when thinking about answering this question?

Would you want to know about China’s level of inequality? Pollution? Economic growth? Average level of education? Tuition rates at top Chinese universities? Stock market returns? Numbers of the Chinese economic elite educating their children in Ivy League universities? The average length of one of China’s imperial dynasties?

What about non-Chinese information? What is the average duration of a dictatorship in the world since 1945 (or 1949)? of Communist Party regimes? Of regimes that have experienced high levels of growth but are experiencing a soft (or hard) landing? Of regimes with high levels of inequality? of regimes with capital cities with or without slums? Of dictatorships with or without elections or legislatures?

What about patterns in East Asia, geographically near China? Does Taiwan’s move to democracy matter more than, say, Mexico’s?

The question of comparison is a difficult one for China scholars. It is cliche to invoke the facts of China’s size and history as unique and make the regime and place incomparable to other places; yet these are indeed facts about this place. China is the world’s most populous nation-state (and will continue to be so for more than a decade until passed by India according to projections from the UN Population Division and others). Chinese history is long. Do these differences mean that we can learn nothing from the experience of other places to apply to China? Is it not informative to know that authoritarian regimes are most often replaced not by democracy through revolution but by another dictatorship through a coup or elite split? That economic growth aids regimes in their bids for survival and that the level of economic development (measured by that old standby, GDP) has little effect on the duration of regimes? These are salient facts that should aid predictions.

This, of course, is not just a class about prediction. It endeavors to improve understanding of Chinese politics by examining different ways that others have thought about and think about the politics of China.

It also will, in a more limited fashion, be about knowing. That is, about facts. Facts are important things; they matter in concrete ways but can be twisted and distorted to serve many different purposes. Knowing details about these facts though is the only way that we can fight their misappropriation. This is not a history course, and I am not a historian, but there is something to the idea of knowing the past helping us to avoid repeating it. Or, to use a less clichéd expression, to thank the spider eaters.

“Many historic lessons were obtained through tremendous sacrifice. Such as eating food – if something is poisonous, we all seem to know it. It is common sense. But in the past many people must have eaten this food and died so that now we know better. Therefore I think the first person who ate crabs was admirable. If not a hero, who would dare eat such creatures? Since someone ate crabs, others must have eaten spiders as well. However, they were not tasty. So afterwards people stopped eating them. These people also deserve our heartfelt gratitude.”            – Lu Xun

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