The black box

Woah. Looks like the world’s most populous country may have recently dodged something of a bullet. Allegedly:

A rising Chinese politician who was abruptly removed from office this summer was publicly accused Thursday of trying to seize control of the Communist Party.

The accusation against the politician, Sun Zhengcai, was made by an economic official during a session of the Communist Party congress in Beijing, and gives the most specific detail to date of the charges against Mr. Sun.

Mr. Sun had previously been accused of “grave violations of discipline,” a vague phrase that can include corruption or disloyalty to the party. But the accusation that he had plotted a political overthrow represents a personalization of the allegations: Rather than attempting to undermine the party, he is accused of transgressions against China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, grouped Mr. Sun with a handful of high-level officials who have been toppled in recent years. He called them “figures in important and high places who were both corrupted and contrived to usurp the leadership of the party and seize power.” […]

Mr. Sun had been party secretary of Chongqing, a city of 30 million where he was sent in 2012 to help clean up one of the country’s biggest political scandals, the fall of Mr. Bo and his top deputy, Wang Lijun, who had been police chief there. Mr. Sun was seen as a possible candidate for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee, at the party congress underway.

But in February he was criticized in a party inspector’s report as having failed to fully stamp out the legacy of Mr. Bo, who was purged for corruption, abuse of power and a murder committed by his wife, Gu Kailai.

Mr. Sun was apologetic after the report and resolved to strengthen his efforts to wipe out the legacy of Mr. Bo, who had been a popular figure in Chongqing. But he disappeared from public view on July 15, just days after pledging his loyalty to Mr. Xi.

It appears we have no information about this remarkable case beyond what the chairman of the CSRC has helpfully revealed. This is another illustration of the fact that elite Chinese politics is a black box – almost perfectly opaque to the world outside of a small handful of top officials (how many? We have no idea). In fact, it’s getting even more opaque as the government refines the techniques of information control and perception management.

This is useful to remember as China’s 19th party congress, a key leadership meeting that occurs twice every decade, has been much in the news in this part of the world:

In the coming weeks, every major Western newspaper and many top China analysts will be making strong claims about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s political position in the wake of the 19th Party Congress. These reports will build off years of tea-leaf reading and Pekingology that collectively underpin a now familiar story of élite political strife met by Xi’s personal consolidation of power. Their accounts will end either with Xi “solidifying his dominance” or “succumbing to the countervailing forces of his rivals”—and they will project an air of certainty. Yet their conclusions, in most cases, will rest precariously on assumptions and guesses about underlying Party mechanics and motivations that can neither be proved nor disproved. Even the best-sourced experts can’t discern how policy preferences and objectives shape political coalitions or élite Party divisions, and we lack critical diagnostic information that would be necessary to confirm or refute competing hypotheses about major political questions.

China’s Party-state is extremely successful at controlling information. Even the most basic insights into policy deliberations and processes, leaders’ intentions and views, and élite power dynamics are filtered through a sophisticated propaganda and censorship regime. A researcher who wants to know, for example, a particular leader’s personal view on state-owned enterprise reform can’t simply interview that leader or read transcripts from committee meetings. She instead has to rely on oracular statements from the People’s Daily or highly scripted speeches at public events. Facing such constraints, analysts have developed alternative models to squeeze insight from the information either that the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) releases through its Orwellian filter or that it cannot control. Such efforts can yield valuable insights. For example, close analysis of personnel movements can give indications of a leader’s expertise and connections, and close readings of Party documents can reveal a shift in policy concepts (like the change from “social management” to “social governance” in 2012). But in most cases, they depend heavily upon assumptions that paper over information gaps, or are structured in ways that exclude policy considerations and important variables. […]

Let us consider this problem with an analogy. We see three men each standing behind a plain, unmarked box. The first and third men pick up their boxes and move them. The second reaches out and grabs his box but does not lift or move it. Why are the three men behaving differently? Are the first and third boxes dramatically lighter? Is the second man considerably weaker? Does the second box contain a ticking bomb that can’t be disturbed without going off? Were all three of them even intending to pick up their boxes in the first place? Without additional information, we simply don’t know. We therefore can only draw confident conclusions about leaders’ relative power if we are confident that we understand their true preferences and have a way to measure the shifts in relative pressures for and against underlying policy moves (or in this case, for lifting up the box). Most of the time, assessing a given leader’s performance on, say, achieving certain reform goals requires making an assumption that his public statements reflect his personal views (and even then we must be careful to confirm we know what leaders mean when they talk about reform goals).

Nobody knows anything. And if they say they do, they’re lying.

Guess again

(H/T)

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