Friday, December 21, 2012


It's the summer solstice here in Wellington, which always feels like the end of the year to me. The longest day should end the year, in my view. Calendar reform now!

At any rate, it feels like as good a time as any to look back at the year. The readership of this blog has grown a bit over the last year, and some posts garnered significant attention, for which I am quite grateful; it is nice to be read, and responses have been thoughtful and useful. Thanks for reading!

The posts on cults of personality seem to be particularly popular; this year one of the old posts on the subject got picked up on Hacker News, for example, which led to thousands of new views. My own personal favorites this year (if I may say so) were my review of Daniel Leese's book on the Mao cult and the post on the triumph of universal suffrage, which also seem to have been relatively popular. I might also single out the "Complexity of Emotion in Authoritarian States" post (which sort of belongs to last year, when Kim Jong-il died), the post on Charles Tilly's poetry and models in the social sciences, the post on ancient and modern "mixed constitutionalism," and the post on reversed systems of suffrage censitaire and Rawls' difference principle, about which I'm still trying to figure out what I actually think. I didn't write as much this year as last year - it's been an exceptionally busy time at work - but I am reasonably happy with most of the things I wrote, some of which have led to papers in progress. (And, I published a book! Yay!)

But enough of that. In the spirit of celebrating the holidays, here is some cool reading material:

The world probably won't end on Friday, but it's still a good time to remind yourself that Mesoamerican eschatology is really really neat.
The Aztecs believed that the creator-god, Ometeotl, created four main gods for the four cardinal directions. These four gods tried to create the world, but it was too dark and they kept screwing up and dropping stuff into the Great Void, where it was eaten by Cipactli the Crocodile Demon With Extra Mouths Upon Every Joint And Teeth Protruding From Her Entire Body.
The gods realized they had to get their act together. They slew the Crocodile Demon and placed the world atop her body. They created mankind out of ashes. And they elected Tezcatlipoca, God of Darkness And Killing Everybody, to become the sun so they could see what they were doing a little better. 
But - and this is what happens when you don't have a God of Staffing Decisions - the God of Darkness made a predictably terrible sun. The stories say he was "only half a sun", although they don't specify whether they mean only half the desired brightness or literally semicircular. In any case, Quetzalcoatl, God Of Niceness And Maybe Not Killing Everybody All The Time, knocked Tezcatlipoca out of the sky, took over as Sun, and did by all accounts a much better job.
It gets better. (Also contains some interesting speculation about why the Aztecs might have developed such a cosmology).

Legislators depend upon their respective electoral districts for reelection. As a result, they face incentives to advance the interests of their constituencies, even when those interested are at odds with the wider interests of the country as a whole. These incentives generate logrolling, pork barrel projects, and other effects that are potentially detrimental to the national interest. Any solution to these problems would have to align the interests of legislators more closely with the national interest. This paper explores one possible proposal for accomplishing this aim. The proposal would require candidates seeking legislative election (or reelection) to run in different districts for primary and general elections. While a candidate would be at liberty to seek nomination by a particular party in any district she chooses, once nominated she would be required to face the candidates of other parties in another district selected at random. The result would be that legislators would make decisions behind what we call a veil of randomness.Our paper describes such a rule, including its philosophical and economic underpinnings, and subsequently demonstrates how the rule changes each politician’s preference function to align with a more universal interest. It concludes by reflecting upon the lessons of this proposal for the project of institutional reform.

Much tougher than you are
Bacteria having a great time in the anoxic brine of the (formerly) ice-sealed Lake Vida in Antarctica. (Living la vida loca?)

Have a good holiday season, whatever you may celebrate.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: More on Benevolent, Malevolent, and Unconstrained Regimes

(Quick graphical follow up to this post on malevolent democracies and benevolent autocracies; part of this series, asymptotically approaching 2. For discussion of the measures of physical integrity, regime types, democracy, and executive constraint used here see the previous post. Because I just can't help myself).

After finishing the previous post, a clearer way of presenting the idea of a "benevolent" regime occurred to me. Essentially, we can classify all regimes along two dimensions: the degree to which the executive is constrained by formal institutions, and the degree to which the state (directed by the executive) engages in killing, political imprisonment, torture, and so on. Using the CIRI data on the protection of physical integrity rights, the Polity IV measure of executive constraint, and the DD measure of political regimes (by Cheibub, Gandhi and Vreeland) we then get the following four-fold classification:

Benevolent regimes are on the upper left hand quadrant: here, rulers are formally unconstrained but nevertheless have, on average over the last 30 years, respected the physical integrity rights of their subjects. These tend to be relatively wealthy, as we can see, and many of them are absolute monarchies: the Qatar of al-Thani (2001-2008), the Oman of Sultan Qabus ibn Sa'id (1981-2008), Swaziland under various monarchs, Bhutan under Sigme Wangchuk (I've labeled the top 5% of the regimes by the benevolence measure, though they may be hard to see, and some are missing from the plot because they don't have GDP data). But many of them are poor countries (even if their GDP figures are occasionally inflated by oil discoveries, for example) and frankly a bit surprising: Gabon under Bongo (1981-2008), Burundi under Buyoya (1981-1991), Malawi under Banda (1981-1993), for example. All of the latter were rulers who consolidated their power long before 1981, I think; so perhaps with a longer dataset we would get somewhat different results. But still, it is worth noting that "the good" are sometimes long-established autocrats.

The bad are typically regimes that hold elections and have formally constrained executives, but where public opinion and the political class is indifferent or even supports violating the rights of various groups of people: Colombia, India, Israel, Indonesia, all make appearances here, as well as South Africa under Apartheid and Peru during the Sendero Luminoso years. The constraints have stopped working with respect to particular groups - poor peasants in Colombia, native peoples in rural areas in Peru, people who are thought to be associated with separatists in the Philippines, Palestinians in Israel. 

The ugly are the usual suspects: your typical unconstrained, megalomaniacal dictator, like the regimes of Gaddhafi in Libya, Kim Jong-il in North Korea, Milosevic in Serbia, Mobutu in Zaire, Marcos in the Philippines, Galtieri in Argentina, al-Bashir in Sudan, Hoxha in Albania, Taylor in Liberia, and so on. It's the dismal roster. Interestingly, Buyoya of Burundi appears again here (1996-2000) among the unconstrained  - a striking illustration of the fragility of mere benevolence. 

The constrained are the boring regimes - not without problems, to be sure, but about as well-functioning as we usually get. (Though some, of course, may note that constrained regimes "internally" does not mean that the regime will be constrained "externally"; as I mentioned in the previous post, threats to the state seem to turn constrained regimes bad). 

Here, just for the hell of it, is a list of countries ranked by their average degree of benevolence; the boxes tell you were how much their "benevolence" has varied over time, and the dots are the outliers - years where their benevolence has strayed far from the mean:
Fig. 2. Regime rankings by benevolence. Dashed lines identify the USA, Venezuela, and New Zealand
We can see at a glance that "benevolence" is mostly a phenomenon of autocracy, though a few democracies have above-average levels of it; and that malevolence is mostly a democratic phenomenon. Yet benevolence among autocracies varies a bit more than among democracies; your average benevolent despot is not extremely reliable, perhaps. (Note also how Burundi is represented at the top and the bottom of the scale, with two different regimes). It is mostly countries in the middle of the distribution that have consistent records of protecting rights, though they are not unblemished.

Here a final picture ranking countries by their average levels of protection of physical integrity rights (thickness of the line represents democracy level; color represents level of protection - darker blue is better; each colored line shows changes from 1981 to 2008): 
Fig. 2: Ranking of countries by avg. levels of physical integrity protection, showing changes during the 1981-2008 period. Dashed lines identify the USA, New Zealand, and Venezuela
New Zealand has done very well during this period (by this measure at least), but the USA ranks 35 out of 167, with a big dip at the end of the period, and a spotty record (note the light blues in earlier years); and Venezuela's state has been going bad since 1989, with the Caracazo. More dictatorships appear at the bottom of the scale, but also many democracies. Interestingly, the end of the cold war seems to have produced improvements in the protection of rights in very few countries; at a glance, only Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Albania stand out. But New Zealand is only in the middle of the benevolence ranking; it does well because its constraints have worked, not because its rulers are unusually benevolent, though perhaps its constraints have worked because public opinion has been reasonably enlightened, and public opinion has been reasonably enlightened because it has faced no big conflicts in the recent past.

(Some messy code that produces these and other graphs is here).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of Malevolent Democracies and Benevolent Autocracies: A Very Short Quantitative History of Political Regimes, Part 1.9325

(Continues my occasional series on the history of political regimes, part 1.9325. Lots of charts and graphs and a slideshow, using the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) human rights dataset and the Political Terror Scale.)

About a month ago, Reed Wood over at the blog Political Violence @ a Glance expressed doubts that there had been much if any meaningful improvement in the extent to which states engaged in torture, beatings, etc. over the past three decades. Neither the Political Terror Scale (measuring the degree to which states engage in torture, political imprisonment, or political murder) nor the Physical Integrity Index of the CIRI dataset (which measures more or less the same thing in a somewhat different way) show any improvement over the last three decades or so, despite the fact that (as we have seen here, here, and here in much greater detail) the world is a more "democratic" place today than three decades ago:
Figure 1. Global mean of the CIRI Physical Integrity Index,  1981-2010 (higher means more protection of physical integrity rights, on a 0 to 8 scale) 

Figure 2. Global mean of the Political Terror Scale,  1976-2011 (higher means more state use of torture, murder, and other physical integrity violations, on a 1 to 5 scale) 

Figure 3. Global mean of the polity2 score,  1976-2011 (higher means more democratic, on a -10 to 10 scale) 
If anything, a slight worsening trend in the extent to which states engage in torture, killing, and so on is detectable here, despite the increase in democracy over the same period. This piqued my curiosity; what is going on here? And what has been the relationship between political regimes and the protection of basic "physical integrity" rights, historically speaking?

Neither the CIRI dataset nor the Political Terror Scale are ideal for answering these questions in sufficient depth; for one thing, their data collection starts just after "peak authoritarianism" in the mid 1970s, and hence misses much of the consolidation of authoritarian regimes in the 50s and 60s. Moreover, it is very likely that the lack of improvement we see above is at least partly an artifact of better reporting and a broader understanding of what counts as a violation of physical integrity by the state, as Anne Marie Clark and Kathryn Sikkink argue in a forthcoming piece. But they can still help us understand broad correlations between political regimes and the malevolence (or restraint) of the state.

Using the CIRI data and a typical measure of democracy (the Polity IV scale, discussed here in more detail), the first thing we note is that, though the overall trend in the protection of physical integrity rights is negative across all regime types, democracies have had on average a better record than other political regimes over the last 30 years:
Figure 4: Trend lines for physical integrity rights by regime type. "Democracy" is defined as a polity score greater than 6; "Autocracy" is defined a polity score lower than - 6. Each point represents a country-year; points are jittered to avoid some overplotting. 
Though we see dictatorships that appear not to engage in torture, killing, and so on, in every year, as well as democracies that do engage in such practices, on average democracies score about 2 points higher in the CIRI Physical Integrity Rights index than autocracies and "anocracies" (the Polity IV term for various hybrid regimes; the picture does not change if we use the Political Terror Scale instead). Since the CIRI index is additive over four measures of state malevolence - extrajudicial killings, disappearances, political imprisonment, and torture, each of which is scored as 0 if the violations are judged to be frequent and widespread, and 2 if they are judged not to have occurred during a particular year (see here for more details) - we could say that democracies on average have committed one fewer crime than autocracies over this period. (Democracies: statistically less criminal than autocracies for over 30 years!). Indeed, nearly 80% of all regimes that receive a perfect 8 in the CIRI index are democracies, while nearly 75% of the regimes that receive a 0 in the index are autocracies or anocracies:
Figure 5: Distribution of regimes accross CIRI index categories. 8 means a high level of protection of physical integrity rights; 0 means widespread violations. "Interruption" includes Polity categories for breakdown of central authority, foreign occupation, and transitional forms.
Moreover, it is also worth noting that the average difference between democracies and autocracies has not changed at all over the entire 30 year period, even as both democracies and autocracies seem to be becoming worse (i.e., more likely to engage in torture, killing, etc.). To me, that looks like prima facie evidence that the lack of improvement in these indexes is at least partly a reporting artifact, though other stories are possible. For example, suppose that the least malevolent autocracies are most at risk of turning into democracies. But they do not immediately become "high quality" democracies; political competition restrains states slightly better than before, but still not well. As more countries become democratic, the average malevolence of both democracies and autocracies should increase - in the first case due to the influx of low-quality democracies into the population (dragging the mean down) - and in the second case due to the exit of less-repressive autocracies from the population. I don't know that this story is correct, but it's worth considering, and some of the trends I discuss below are consistent with this relationship. In particular, if the story is correct, we should see a (slight) strengthening of the correlation between measures of democracy and measures of physical integrity over time - and in fact we do see this.

At any rate, the correlation between democracy and a lower average level of state malevolence remains striking, if perhaps unsurprising given common ideas about democracy. But couldn't it be the case that the correlation is built into the measure of democracy we are using here? Though the Polity IV measures are basically institutional (conceptualizing democracy as a variety of political competition, without assuming much of anything about whether or not democracies are more or less malevolent state forms), it may still be the case that they assume too much. Perhaps coders tend to give "nice" regimes higher scores; some of the political competition categories in the Polity IV index are notoriously opaque. Yet the correlations are the basically the same if we use the most minimal measure of democracy we can think of (the dichotomous DD measure, discussed here, which defines democracy as a regime where the leadership of the state is selected through competitive elections and nothing else):
Fig. 6: Distribution of democracies and dictatorships across CIRI scores. Dichotmous measure of democracy from the DD dataset by Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland.

As before, it looks like most "benevolent" states (those scoring high in the CIRI index of physical integrity protection) are democracies, and most "malevolent" states are dictatorships (or more precisely, regimes where the political leadership is not selected via competitive elections; whether we want to call these regimes "dictatorships" is basically a question of nomenclature). (Results are basically identical if we use the PTS). But there remain a good number of elective regimes who score very low on the index, as well as a good number of non-elective regimes that score high on this index. Let's call the former malevolent democracies and the latter benevolent autocracies. What can we say about them?

Consider first the distribution of CIRI scores across regime types (using the DD measures of regime types):
Parliamentary democracies (59 of them in the dataset, nearly 1000 country-years in total with data on physical integrity protection) and mixed presidential/parliamentary democracies (36 of them, about 500 country-years) are the clear winners here - the least overtly criminal regimes over the past 30 years. Monarchies, however, (14 of them in the dataset, for about 300 country-years) did quite well; few of them appear to have engaged in any significant malevolence during the 1981-2008 period (and most of it was concentrated in Nepal, Morocco, and Saudia Arabia during this time). Indeed, the mean level of "physical integrity rights protection" in monarchies is nearly as high as in parliamentary democracies, and higher than in presidential democracies, which have been the worst of the democratic regimes. Civilian dictatorships appear just as likely to be "good" as to be "bad," and military dictatorships are the worst of the bunch. No non-democracy (monarchic or otherwise), scores a perfect 8 average for the period, whereas some democracies do (mostly small places like Iceland or Tuvalu, or very new democracies that have not yet have time to besmirch their records), though of course a number of democracies score very low too. (The rankings of regime types don't look any different if we use the PTS instead of the CIRI index).

Perhaps more interesting is to look at the most benevolent autocracies and most malevolent democracies over the period. The color of each glyph in the map below represents the average level of the CIRI index for the years for which data exists; the size of the glyph represents the number of years with data (ranging from 1 to a maximum of 30); and the shape represents the average Polity2 score over the 1981-2010 period, split into three broad categories: circles represent countries that have been mostly democratic over the last three decades; triangles represent countries that have been mostly "anocracies" (hybrid regimes); and squares represent countries that have been mostly autocratic. So if the correlation between regime type and the protection of physical integrity rights were perfect, we would expect squares in the map below to be red, circles to be blue, and triangles to be light colored. Red circles thus represent malevolent democracies, and blue squares benevolent autocracies (I've labeled the most malevolent democracies and the most benevolent non-democracies below):
Fig. 8. Average levels of physical integrity protection, 1981-2010, by regime type as defined by the Polity IV score
The top benevolent non-democracies by this measure (average CIRI index greater than 6, average polity2 lower than -6) are a mixed bunch: Suriname, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Gambia, Benin, Gabon, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Taiwan, Singapore, and Fiji. Among these, Oman[!] has the best overall record, with an average CIRI score of 7.17, better than the USA average for the period. Some of these regimes are basically electoral but noncompetitive regimes, such as Singapore; others democratized substantially during the period in question, though reports of torture or political imprisonment appear never to have been common even during more authoritarian times, or were concentrated at the beginning of the period (Taiwan, Poland, Hungary); and others are rich gulf monarchies (Oman, UAE, Qatar). Perhaps the most surprising cases are Gambia, Benin, and Gabon, none of which appear to have engaged in much direct political violence against their own citizens (at least none that was noticed by the State Department or Amnesty International, the ultimate sources for the CIRI index), despite being very poor countries. Happy autocracies, pace Tolstoy, are not all alike.

The top malevolent democracies by this measure show more commonalities: El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Israel, and India. These are almost all countries that faced or face substantial internal conflicts - the FARC insurgency in Colombia, Kashmir and Nagaland in India, the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel, conflicts with Kurds and between the secularists in the military and more religious civilian forces in Turkey,very sharp class conflicts in Venezuela, Brazil, and El Salvador. "Internal" threats to the state turn democracies bad. Just look at the CIRI graph for the USA for the period, and check out the dip after 2001 for further evidence:
Fig. 9. CIRI index of physical integrity rights for the USA, 1981-2010
And all this time the USA received a polity2 score of 10 - the highest possible.

Obviously, these overall judgments have to be taken with a grain of salt; as the cases of Poland and Hungary show, the cutoff for the dataset may mean that more repressive periods are excluded from consideration, or it may mean that they are included when there has in fact been a qualitative break in the nature of the state. Furthermore, there may be other factors that are related to the level of physical integrity protection; the level of economic development, inequality, and the rate of economic growth all come to mind, among many other possibilities (some of which are explored below).

One may think that the key factor ensuring that the regime is not criminal is the degree of executive constraint, not the whole degree of democracy. So let's define a benevolent regime as a regime where the executive is highly unconstrained but nevertheless does not act in a criminal way (though it could do so with impunity) and a malevolent regime as one where the executive is so constrained but nevertheless is not prevented from killing, torturing, or imprisoning for political beliefs at least some of its citizens, perhaps because the people who constrain the executive are complicit in its criminality. Now, Polity actually includes a measure of executive constraint, which is highly correlated, but not perfectly, with the CIRI index. (Better, in fact, than the overall democracy measure). We can then ask: are there truly constrained malevolent democracies? Or truly unconstrained benevolent autocracies? Using the DD measure of regime type and the polity measure of executive constraint we can produce an independent "index of benevolence" (essentially, we multiply both, after reversing the exconst measure, and take the square root) - higher is more benevolent, with a median of 4:
Average degree of benevolence/malevolence, by country and regime type (as measured in the DD dataset)

As we can see, democracies are typically constrained but not benevolent; almost all of them score lower than the median of benevolence. The top 10 "benevolent" regimes are all non-democracies (except for Bhutan for a few years, which is a hard case), and we have to go down to Mali to find a regime coded as democratic by DD that also had a relatively unconstrained executive and a reasonable record of not torturing, killing, or imprisoning its citizens. By the same token, most dictatorships overperform a bit; their records are better than the degree of executive constraint would lead one to expect.

The top 10 benevolent autocracies by this method are similar to the ones identified above. Many are absolute monarchies - Qatar, Oman, Swaziland; constrained, perhaps, more by tradition and culture than by formal institutions, as Victor Menaldo has argued (ungated). Some are expected, though still puzzling (why so restrained?): Singapore, Hungary during the last decade of the communist system. Others are very unexpected - many very poor African autocracies - Gabon, Benin. At the other end of the scale we find that malevolence (executive constraints plus torture and imprisonment) is almost always a democratic phenomenon; India, Israel, Colombia, and Jamaica bring in the bottom of the table. When unconstrained dictators do these things it's expected, but when democracies do it it's malevolent.

A temporal view may be interesting too. In the slideshow below, the size of each dot represents the actual level of protection of human rights, the color of each dot represents the naive deviation from the expected level of protection of human rights given the polity score, and the shape of the dots represents the regime type. So red dots are more malevolent than expected given the polity score of the country and blue dots more malevolent, while white dots are at the expected level of human rights protection. The measure for the deviation here is not empirically derived - it's not the residual of a regression of the physical integrity index on the polity score - but normative; a democracy with a perfect polity score that does not engage in torture, killing, and so on is not "benevolent" but merely doing its job properly, whereas a completely unconstrained dictatorship with a polity score of -10 that does not engage in torture, killing, and the like of political opponents is being "merely" benevolent. Hence dots representing democracies with a score of 10 never look blue on the map, and dots representing dictatorships with a score of -10 never look red. I've labeled the countries that have the largest deviations from a simple naive relationship between polity2 and the level of protection of physical integrity.

(Best viewed in full screen by clicking on the link on the lower left corner). Note how the period starts with a lot of benevolent autocracies (including a large number of African countries whose polity score belies the relative benevolence of their states by this measure) and democracies that generally respected human rights. As the nineties come along, there are many new democracies that "underperform"; from a blue and white world (with an even split between benevolent autocracies and democracies that do their job), we come to a world that is mostly pink (with many new and underperforming democracies), consistently with the selection hypothesis mentioned above. Things then take a sharp dive in the aftermath of September 11; most democracies - including most established ones in North America and Western Europe - become more malevolent in the years after 2011. In some cases we can easily point to the specific events that turn countries red in the map: the Sendero Luminoso years in Peru in the 1980s, the Caracazo in Venezuela in 1989, the endless conflict with the Palestinians in Israel. But though many countries in the map appear as benevolent autocracies or as malevolent democracies for short periods, most countries seem to settle to their expected level; both benevolent autocracy and malevolent democracy seem to be fragile, though benevolent autocracy is more common than malevolent democracy.

It is also worth looking at how the relationship between democracy and human rights protection varied over this period. We simply fit a simple linear model regressing the Physical Integrity Index against the Polity2 score for each year, and look at how the coefficient for the polity2 score has changed over time:
Fig. 11: Coefficient of polity2 in the model PHYSINT ~ a*polity2 + b estimated for each year. Shaded areas represent the 95% confindence interval for a.
The picture is suggestive of a structural break in the relationship between democracy and state malevolence with the end of the Cold War. States that had apparently been more autocratic than their record of benevolence suggested suddenly found their expected level of democracy, consistent with the hypothesis mentioned above. But not every country has benefited from increases in democracy. Among countries where we observe changes in their level of democracy in this period as measured by the polity2 score only about half of them (56% or so) seem to have experienced changes in the level of state malevolence that are in the right direction. In other words, it is only in about half the cases in the sample that increases in democracy are (statistically) associated with greater state benevolence (and vice-versa: decreases in democracy are statistically associated with greater state malevolence); in the other half, increases in democracy are associated with greater state malevolence (and vice-versa), though the magnitude of the association appears to be small in most cases:
Fig. 12: Magnitude of the relationship between polity2 and CIRI, per country, 1981-2010. Lines show 95% confidence intervals for the polity2 coefficient
In countries to the left of the red line, increases in democracy were associated in this period with more state malevolence (or vice-versa, i.e., increases in autocracy with more benevolence); in countries to the right, increases in democracy are associated are associated with more state benevolence (as we would naively expect). The striking thing here is how little of a pattern there is; though there are some slight regional associations (democratization appears to have been more correlated with state benevolence and vice-versa in the Americas than elsewhere), and some events are not captured by the graph above (for example, the change in democracy levels and state benevolence among the successor countries of the Soviet Union; this could be done, but I'm not up to it right now), no obvious associations jump out. A better test, perhaps, would look for changes in the degree of executive constraint (indeed, it looks as if changes in executive constraints do have a positive effect on a larger proportion of countries - 63% in my sample instead of 53%); but whether or not political regimes are associated with state malevolence and benevolence, other factors must be swamping much of their influence. Consider, for example, GDP per capita:
Fig. 13: GDP per capita (from the PWT) and the Physical Integrity Index, by regime type (as measured by the DD dataset)
As we might expect, in every regime type except for military dictatorships state benevolence is correlated with income per capita; the state is usually tamer in richer countries, though military dictatorships seem to get more malevolent the richer they are, even as they also become sparser as income increases. Or consider inequality (a much more striking picture):
Fig. 14: Inequality (measured using the UTIP data) and the Physical Integrity Index, by regime type (as measured by the DD dataset)
The malevolence of the state seems to be exquisitely sensitive to inequality in democracies, in contrast to non-democracies; the less repressive regimes are almost all on the upper left hand quadrant. This makes sense in light of the Acemoglu-Robinson story about the relationship between inequality and regime types: democracies enable class conflict, and hence the state is more likely to get more repressive as that conflict intensifies, whereas a dictatorship has "settled" such conflicts - arrived at some repressive equilibrium that is not especially sensitive to inequality. But of course other stories are also possible (not least that the data on inequality is not great); this is not a test of anything. It is also plausible to speculate that as the world became both more democratic and more unequal over the past 30 years, we would have seen a generally flat trend in the mean CIRI index; rising inequality would have cancelled out the effects of rising democracy.

Finally, consider economic growth:
Fig. 15: The Physical Integrity Index and per capita gdp growth, by regime type (as measured by the DD dataset) 
I confess that I found this picture surprising: I thought there would be an association between low levels of economic growth and greater repressiveness, but apparently not.

We could put this all together in some more complex model. But a structural break seems to remain; adjusting for gdp per capita does not change the picture in figure 11 much, though adding inequality softens the relationship a bit. At any rate, it seems as if the old idea of checks and balances is at least somewhat vindicated by the evidence of the last three decades: constraints matter, and don't count on benevolent autocrats.

(Code for all the graphs in this post is available here; as usual, it's very messy. You will also need this file of codes, plus the Penn World Table data, the CIRI dataset, the Political Terror Scale, the Polity data, the DD dataset, and the UTIP inequality dataset).

[Update 13/12/2012 - minor wording changes for the sake of clarity]

[Update: a quick graphical followup to this post here]

Friday, October 26, 2012

“Ten thousand melodies cannot express our boundless hot love for you”: the Cult of Personality in Mao’s China

(6,500 words on Daniel Leese’s fascinating book Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China's Cultural Revolution [Cambridge University Press, 2011], by someone who is no expert on Chinese history, but has lots of non-peer-reviewed theories about cults of personality. Thanks to Andrew Ivory for the book recommendation, and to my colleague Jason Young for conversation on the topic and help with the Chinese characters.)

Longtime readers of this blog know I am fascinated by the phenomenon of cults of personality. (Click here for some of my previous posts on the subject). In fact, I’m working on a paper on the subject and gathering data on the prevalence of cults and cult-like phenomena in the 20th century, so I was of course delighted to hear about this book. It did not disappoint: Leese’s book is everything a scholarly monograph should be. It is deeply learned, thoroughly researched, and well written; and the story it tells is fascinating. Not the least of its merits, from my perspective, is that it provides supporting evidence for some of my own pet ideas about cults of personality, though it also has led me to rethink and nuance others.

The idea of a “cult of personality” is in some ways a peculiarly modern one. Practices of “leader worship” were of course not unknown in the past; one might almost say that they were basically the default way in which peoples related to leaders in “pre-modern” state societies, from the recognition of Egyptian Pharaohs as god-kings to emperor worship in China, and from the cults of Hellenistic monarchs and Roman emperors to the sacralisation of monarchs in Medieval Europe. But such cults could only become a theoretical and political problem in the context of societies which claimed to be socially or politically egalitarian, as most societies do today; it is only against a background expectation of relative equality that the practice of leader worship appears as an aberration, in need of special justification or explanation. And this problem was especially acute in communist societies, where even formal terms of address had been consciously engineered to express the idea of equality (“comrade”), yet nevertheless appeared to be embarrassingly plagued by forms of leader worship.

It is thus no accident that the term itself (“cult of personality”) came into wide circulation at around the time of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of 1956, which condemned Stalin’s “cult of the individual.” The pattern is unmistakable; we can see it, for example, in the books indexed by Google in a variety of languages. So, for example, in English:
Figure 1: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" and related terms in the English corpus of books in Google

Or, more emphatically, in Russian:
Figure 2: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" and related terms in the Russian corpus of books in Google

In Chinese the pattern is somewhat more muddled (there are some weird artifacts if we look at mentions of the term before 1940), perhaps because the Google corpus is less reliable for Chinese texts, and perhaps because of the simplification of the Chinese script that was happening around the 1950s makes it difficult for us to capture all the mentions of “cult of personality” in books published before and around the mid-20th century. Yet the basic shape of the usage curve is still there, showing the impact of Khrushchev’s speech, though it decays faster and rebounds more than in English or Russian, for reasons that are not immediately clear:

Figure 3: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" in the simplified Chinese corpus of books in Google

Leese’s book takes the Chinese response to Khrushchev’s speech as the starting point for its story. The speech could not but be seen by Chinese leaders as a poke in the eye, especially Mao’s, whose cult bore some resemblance to Stalin’s, even if it had diminished in intensity in 1956 relative to the late 40s. (In fact, the Chinese Communist Party had generally prevented excessive open flattery of Mao during the early years of the People’s Republic, with his consent; later “excesses” lay in the future). And by forcing them to respond and to justify or change their practices, the speech also threatened to produce shifts in power within the CCP. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the speech ended up providing an unexpected impetus to the further development of the Mao cult.

Leese argues that the cult first emerged during the later years of the Chinese civil war as a mobilizing device. It was consciously promoted by the top leadership of the CCP (not just Mao) in reaction to the growing cult of Chiang Kai-shek on the Guomindang side, and seen even by people who had doubts about overly personalizing Marxism as a way to unify the party against their enemies. From this point of view, the cult appeared as a form of what Leese calls “branding” (not my preferred term); and it was specifically nurtured within the party through the practice of “group study” of party history, which presented a mythical narrative of the Long March under Mao’s “correct” leadership. At this stage the cult thus served both to marginalize certain factions (e.g., the group of Soviet-trained cadres around Wang Ming, who had Stalin’s favour) and to motivate party and army members in the continuing struggle with KMT forces; to the extent that the cult also mobilized non-party members, it would have done so mainly through general propaganda campaigns, an arena where it had to compete with similar publicity by the KMT, at least in contested “white” areas. With the victory of the CCP these mobilizing and unifying functions of the cult became less important, though the party of course continued to control the public display of Mao’s image, and the cult could still be used as one of the instruments of centralization employed by the CCP (e.g., against Gao Gang in 1953-54, who developed his own regional cult in China’s north-east and was eventually purged).

This is not to say that there was no demand “from below” for cult practices. Since the CCP was in part a huge hierarchical patronage machine with few formal mechanisms for promotion, signalling loyalty through praise – sending congratulatory telegrams to Mao, for example, even when these were discouraged by the CCP leadership – was a useful means of career maintenance and even advancement. (You want to be the one local committee that does not send congratulatory telegrams? How is that going to look?). But praise of the top leaders was tempered both by the fact that it was embedded in a larger discourse where Stalin, not Mao, was the pre-eminent leader of the communist world, and by the fact that the top leadership of the party seems to have consciously discouraged extreme praise, perhaps because it feared (not unreasonably, as it turns out) concentrating power in Mao’s hands. The cult thus appears here not only as a mobilization device pushed from the top, but as the unintended consequence of loyalty signalling by lower levels of the party, which tended to keep the overall level of flattery relatively high, and inflationary pressures steady; and it was clearly fuelled, though not fully explained, by the undoubtedly high popularity of the party and the prestige of Mao as its leader during the early 1950s.

The death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s speech, and other political developments disrupted this initial equilibrium, in which the expression of loyalty to Mao had not yet crowded out all other signals of loyalty to the party and the revolution, and had not yet colonized public space to the extent to which it did during the Cultural Revolution. For one thing, the death of Stalin had the effect of displacing foreign leaders from their pre-eminent position in public displays, leaving Mao to monopolize an ever larger and more central share of public space. Leese’s book describes for example the faintly comical difficulties experienced by local cadres when trying to organize parades and other festivities after 1953; the question of whose portraits and what slogans to display, and in what order, was evidently of great importance to them (a faux pas could be harmful to one’s career prospects, I suppose), and yet directives from the Centre became ever more confusing. Indeed, a directive of April 1956 essentially declared that no guidance would be provided to local party committees regarding whose portraits to display and in what order during public events. Eventually the confusion seems to have been resolved in the obvious way: portraits of foreign leaders were no longer handed out to marching crowds at official events.

The effects of Khrushchev’s speech on the cult were at first more negative. On the one hand, the CCP’s initial response to it fed into a process of liberalization of the public sphere which had begun somewhat earlier. (Leese interprets the directive relaxing control over the display of symbols and portraits as part of this process). Criticism of the cult and other forms of “dogmatism” was aired in high places, and support for collective leadership expressed. At any rate, the party was (with good reason) confident in its popularity at this time, and prepared to relax its control over the public sphere. Leese thus takes the “Hundred Flowers” campaign of 1957 to be a (botched) attempt at genuine liberalization, though Mao himself later described it as a trap, a way to “lure snakes out of their holes.” As time went on, however, both Mao and groups within the party came to think that liberalization had gone too far: cadres became demoralized and confused (which contradictions were good and which were bad? Why had so many bad things happened since Khrushchev denounced Stalin?), critics started attacking the party and even Mao directly, and Mao’s prestige suffered:

The failure of the rectification campaign [the “Hundred Flowers” campaign] led to a self-generated crisis of faith in ... the CCP’s governance, and the responsibility was clearly to be placed on Mao. He thus faced two “credibility gaps”: The campaign had tarnished his image as omniscient helmsman of the Chinese Revolution among party members, and the campaign’s indecisive enactment led non-party members to question his authority over the CCP (p. 63).

(More worrying, perhaps, was the fact that the failed rectification campaign had opened the doors to criticism of Mao by senior party figures like Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, though Leese does not make much of this.) At any rate, the problems with the rectification campaign prompted Mao to take greater control over the propaganda apparatus and to sharpen the distinction between “good” and “bad” criticism in a way that left Mao more or less in control of determining which views fell into which category. By early 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Mao had even formulated a distinction between a “correct” cult of personality (indicated by the term geren chongbai 个人 崇拜) and an “incorrect” cult (indicated eventually by the term geren mixin 个人 迷信). The distinction sidestepped the theoretical problem raised by Khrushchev’s criticism of cults by redefining “good” cults as a worship of “truth,” but it was transparently driven by Mao’s understanding of the cult “as an extrabureaucratic source of power that did not rely on its recognition within the party elite” (p. 69). In other words, if there had to be a cult, Mao indicated that it better be his as the representative of “truth,” or at least of those people he could approve of, regardless of party views. As Mao said, quoting Lenin, “it is better for me to be a dictator than it is for you.” (Much later, Mao told Edgar Snow that Khrushchev’s failure to develop a cult had led to his eventual purge by Politburo members, which shows that he thought of the cult as a useful device to prevent challenges to his position from within the party). Moreover, the cult seemed to Mao a good instrument for promoting a “lively, emotional climate” that would motivate people to take a “great leap forward” toward communism, just as the cult had served to motivate party members and soldiers during their struggles against the KMT.

The articulation of the distinction between a “correct” and an “incorrect” cult, however, opened the door to flattery hyper-inflation. As Leese notes elsewhere:

... with the validation of a correct cult it was not necessary any more to ‘praise the king the whole time, but, so to say, without explicit praises’, as Paul Pellisson, court historian of Louis XIV, once wrote. During the early years of the PRC, praise of Mao Zedong in public discourse had by and large been curbed with Mao’s consent. But after March 1958, references to the Party Chairman and his thought witnessed a huge upsurge in the media, although in comparative perspective the excesses were dwarfed by the Cultural Revolutionary rhetoric.

Cadres wishing to prove their loyalty could now stop worrying too much about the question raised by Khrushchev of whether cults of personality were compatible with Marxism-Leninism, and hyperbolic praise of Mao and his latest “line” soon became a necessary instrument of career maintenance and advancement within the CCP, though at the beginning such praise was still carefully defined as praise of the “truth” (which just happened to be embodied in the person of Mao and his works).

The praise soon came into conflict with reality, however. The burst of flattery encouraged by Mao led to a flood of “completely fictive numbers of both agricultural statistics and cultural artifacts in order to signal adherence of the provincial cadres to the Party Centre” (p. 73). But the great famine of 1958-59 could not be hidden by mere propaganda; for those affected by the catastrophe, the evidence of the senses was of course in direct contradiction with the claims of Mao and his flatterers, which challenged Mao’s prestige and credibility and offered opportunities to disaffected people within the party. This challenge was the most serious yet to Mao’s position, in part because the famine fomented dissatisfaction within the People’s Liberation Army, whose soldiers could not be fully isolated from reports coming in from family members about the situation in the countryside. (Not even the Central Bureau of Guards, the unit in charge of guarding the leaders of the party, was immune to unrest). Soldiers were asking: is “Chairman Mao ... going to allow us to starve to death”? (quoted in p. 96). Even more seriously, Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had enormous prestige within the PLA, became severely critical of Mao’s policies. This was an intolerable challenge to Mao’s position, who feared a coup; and though Peng was eventually purged (with dire consequences for the Chinese population, since Peng’s public criticism led Mao to stubbornly stick to policies that the party had been quietly about to correct, according to Leese), the need to regain control over the army was pressing. Lin Biao (the youngest PLA Marshal) proved the man for the job.

For one thing, Lin was not shy about praising Mao, and knew how to wield the charge of insufficient adherence to Mao Zedong thought against his enemies within the party and the military. In fact, he was able to shift the norms prevailing at the top of the CCP so that “adherence to Mao Zedong thought” became the sole criterion of loyalty. In practice, this meant that any statements critical of Mao – uttered at any time in the past – could be used as incriminating evidence of disloyalty, and used in factional disputes which nearly destroyed the party, and served to purge many people at the top.

There is a puzzle here, however: as Leese puts it, “[i]t seems difficult to explain why Liu Shaoqi and other CCP leaders watched and presided over the demise of the Beijing party leadership” since the criteria of loyalty promoted by Lin Biao “could be applied to nearly anyone” by those “wielding the power of interpretation” (p. 126). Why didn’t they resist this shift? Leese gestures vaguely towards Mao’s entrenched “legitimacy” as an explanation of the CCP leadership’s passivity in the face of what was, after all, a concerted attack on their position, but I don’t think this rickety Weberian catch-all term helps us very much to understand what happened here. My sense is that under the conditions of pervasive distrust at the top of the CCP, contradicting Lin carried higher risks individually (though greater lowered collective risks) than supporting him or staying silent (which nevertheless increased collective risks); but this was not so much because Mao was especially legitimate among the top leadership (whatever that means) but because the party was too publicly committed to him for objectors to feel confident that they could count on the support of others if they went out of their way to argue against the cult. (By the same token, they could be pretty certain that others would use their words against them).

Interestingly, though Lin knew how to signal his unconditional loyalty (in costly, even humiliating ways sometimes) he seems to have had no special love for Mao himself. On the contrary, he seems not to have liked Mao much, and to have promoted the cult in part as a way of protecting himself from the treacherous shoals of politics at the apex of the CCP; he had seen (in Peng Dehuai’s case) how even the merest hint of criticism could be turned by Mao (and others) against the critic, with severe repercussions, and was determined to avoid a similar fate. Leese quotes a 1949 private note of Lin’s on Mao’s political tactics: “First he will fabricate “your” opinion for you; then he will change your opinion, negate it, and re-fabricate it – Old Mao’s favourite trick. From now on I should be wary of it” (p. 90). By 1959 Lin was adept at anticipating Mao’s position and changing his opinion as soon as he sensed that the old opinion was no longer operative.

Lin used the cult not only to protect himself from the vicious “court politics” of the CCP, but also to discipline the army and tamp down dissatisfaction among the soldiers. The main tool he used to accomplish this objective was similar to the original forms of “group study” that had been used at the very beginnings of the cult, except more narrowly focused on Mao’s writings and more ritualized. The “lively study and application of Mao Zedong thought” was in practice reduced to learning to recite and use quotations from Mao’s works as persuasive tools. But the particulars are fascinating; what Leese describes is in effect the conscious construction of what Randall Collins calls an “interaction ritual” (really, go read Collins – it’s enormously interesting stuff!) that shifted the “emotional energy” of the troops and the party and increased their cohesion (Leese speaks of “exegetical bonding,” which is quite a nice description too).

Contacts between the troops and their families were monitored, but they were not necessarily directly censored. Instead, reports of distress in the countryside were turned into “teaching moments” that extolled the necessity of staying the course and blamed unfavourable weather or the deviations of local officials from the correct line. Elaborate performances making use of all kinds of media – big character posters, theatre, films, poetry, etc. – recalled the “bitterness” of the past (before the communist triumph) and extolled the “sweeteness” of the present (though, as one official noted, “most comparisons of the present sweetness referred back to the period of the land reform, whereas remarks about the Great Leap Forward were “inclined to be abstract and without substance”,” p. 102), while presenting examples of communist martyrs for emulation. The focus was on generating emotion by “remembering hardships” and then channelling that emotion against the enemies of the communist project to achieve bonding. The combination of peer pressure, genuine emotional experiences, and threats of discipline for recalcitrance was clearly powerful, yet the party was aware of the dangers of people merely “acting as if” they believed. Indeed, advice from high up indicated that “cadres were not to insist on formalities such as the weeping of participants as demonstration of their sincerity” (p. 100). But the very fact that such advice had to be given at all probably shows that lower-level cadres did insist on such performances just to be safe.

There were also campaigns to emulate “soldiers of Mao Zedong thought,” which essentially meant soldiers who displayed the sorts of self-sacrificing qualities that the party thought desirable. Here the cult served, it seems to me, as a means by which certain kinds of status competition were encouraged (the heroes of Mao Zedong thought, like Stakhanovite workers in the Soviet Union, received media attention and other rewards), and hence provided a positive incentive to adopt the “correct” sort of identity and behaviour, complementing the negative incentives provided by peer pressure in group study sessions or other collective interaction rituals. And as elsewhere, status competition that is made to depend on the credibility of loyalty signals appears to lead to inflationary pressures on flattery.

From the army, the more intense forms of the cult spread to the broader population over time, accelerating as the Cultural Revolution started. Leese tells the story of the creation of the “Little Red Book,” for example, which was printed more than a billion times between 1966 and 1969:
Image from wikimedia commons

The Little Red Book was at first confined to the army, but demand for it outside its confines was soon enormous. For one thing, political study campaigns in the countryside (which increased in the 1960s) required a focal text to mobilize people properly, and the Quotations provided one. But, as Leese astutely observes, the main thing that the Quotations offered was the “possibility of empowerment for non-party members” (p. 121). Though Leese does not put it this way, the book seemed to provide access to the “code” that enabled people to act more or less safely within the highly unpredictable environment of the early cultural revolution; and the party enabled this demand by basically diverting the resources of the “entire publishing sector” to printing Mao’s writings, “at the expense of every other print item, including schoolbooks” (p. 122). Pace Leese, I think it is a bit misleading to speak of the work’s “popularity”; the work was popular, if that’s the word, because it was becoming essential for everyone to show some familiarity with (read: be able to recite quotations from) Mao’s writings. Indeed, as Leese documents later in the book, during the early cultural revolution Red Guards would set up “temporary inspection offices” on the streets and harass pedestrians about their knowledge of Mao’s works, like the “vice police” in some countries today; this sort of atmosphere helped the cult to grow.

Other rituals were of course important to the spread of the more intense forms of the cult outside the army. The eight “mass receptions” of the Red Guards in 1966 were the most spectacular of these, though in some ways the least interesting (to me). Though the Red Guards became a sort of vanguard in the spread of the cult throughout Chinese society during the cultural revolution, the actual number of people who participated in these receptions would have been quite small relative to China’s total population, most of them impressionable young students who took the advantage of free train travel to get involved in something bigger than themselves. Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that many of them reported ecstatic experiences on seeing Mao (who didn’t make any big speeches or direct them in any particular way), which in turn cemented their identities as Red Guards; this sort of “interaction ritual” seems likely to produce this sort of outcome fairly reliably, independently of any characteristics of the supposedly “charismatic” figure (consider what happens at your typical K-pop or J-pop concert). The more interesting point for me was about the role that free train travel and accommodation played in encouraging the cult in 1966; for some people, at least, participation in the “exchange of experiences” must have been a great opportunity to see China and engage in rebellious activity with relatively low risk. (As Leese remarks, “many students displayed much more revolutionary fervor in distant places than at home, where they had to consider other interests involved,” p. 139).

As the cult spread and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, however, the party lost control over its symbols. Leese refers to this as the period of “cult anarchy;” I would compare it to the point at which monetary authorities lose control of the money supply, leading to runaway hyperinflation. Different factions of Red Guards started using Mao’s image and words in incompatible ways, and new cult rituals emerged from the grass roots, sometimes from the enthusiasm of the genuinely committed, sometimes seemingly as protective talismans against the uncertainty and strife of the period. Everybody appealed to Mao to signal their revolutionary credentials, but there was no longer anyone capable of settling disputes over the credibility of these signals. Mao himself wasn’t much help; whenever he spoke at all, his messages were often cryptic and didn’t really settle any important disputes. The cult was now a “Red Queen” race of wasteful signalling, rather than a carefully calibrated tool of mobilization or discipline, driven by a complex combination of genuine desires to signal loyalty and identity and fears for one’s security. (Leese notes that failure to conform to the arbitrary protocols of the cult put people at risk of being sentenced as an “active counterrevolutionary” and documents many cases in which minimal symbolic transgressions resulted in incarceration or even death).

By 1967, for example, statues of Mao first started to be built, something that CCP leaders, and Mao himself, had discouraged in the past, and still officially frowned upon. The statues were typically built by local factions without approval from the central party, and they were all 7.1 meters high and placed on a pedestal that was 5.16 meters high, for a total height of 12.26 meters. (26 December = Mao’s birthday, 1 July = the Party’s founding date, 16 May = the beginning of the cultural revolution. People arrived at this precise convention for the statues without any centralized direction, merely through a signalling process). Later “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Though Halls” were built on a grand scale, again without approval from the central party. Billions of Chairman Mao badges were produced by individual work units competing with each other, which were themselves subject to size inflation (“[a]s the larger size of the badges came to be associated with greater loyalty to the CCP Chairman, … badges with a diameter of 30 centimetres and greater came to be produced,” p. 216); Zhou Enlai would grumble in 1969 about the enormous waste of resources this represented. Costly signalling demands kept escalating; some people took to pinning the badges directly on their skin, for example, and farmers sent “loyalty pigs” to Mao as gifts (pigs with a shaved “loyalty” character).

New rituals and performances emerged too: Leese discusses the “quotation gymnastics,” a series of gymnastics exercises with a storyline based on Mao’s thought and involving praise of the “reddest red sun in our hearts,” and more bizarrely perhaps, “loyalty dances,” (picture at the link) which, like the quotation gymnastics, was “a grassroots invention” designed to physically signal loyalty, and which spread “even to regions where public dancing was not part of the common culture and thus led to considerable public embarrassment” (p. 205). People wrote the character for “loyalty” everywhere and developed new conventions for answering the phone that started by wishing Mao eternal life. One of the most bizarre and interesting stories in the book concerns “Mao’s mangos:” the story of how some mangos that Mao gave to a “Propaganda Team” became relics beyond the control of the Central Party. Let me quote from Adam Yuet Chau’s article on the mangos as relics (Past and Present (2010) 206 (suppl 5): 256-275), which has a much better summary than anything I can manage:

On 5 August 1968, Mao received the Pakistani foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain, who brought with him a basket of golden mangoes as gifts for the Chairman. Instead of eating the mangoes, Mao decided to give them to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team … that had earlier been sent to the Qinghua University in Beijing to rein in the rival Red Guard gangs. Two days later, on 7 August, the People’s Daily, the official news organ of the Communist Party-state, carried a report on the mango gift that included the following extra-long headline in extra-large font: ‘The greatest concern, the greatest trust, the greatest support, the greatest encouragement; our great leader Chairman Mao’s heart is always linked with the hearts of the masses; Chairman Mao gave the precious gifts given by a foreign friend to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team’. 

Yuet Chau then quotes an eyewitness:

Mao gave the mangoes to Wang Dongxing, who divided them up, distributing one mango each to a number of leading factories in Beijing, including Beijing Textile Factory, where I was then living. The workers at the factory held a huge ceremony, rich in the recitation of Mao’s words, to welcome the arrival of the mango, then sealed the fruit in wax, hoping to preserve it for posterity. The mangoes became sacred relics, objects of veneration. The wax-covered fruit was placed on an altar in the factory auditorium, and workers lined up to file past it, solemnly bowing as they walked by. No one had thought to sterilize the mango before sealing it, however, and after a few days on display, it began to show signs of rot. The revolutionary committee of the factory retrieved the rotting mango, peeled it, then boiled the flesh in a huge pot of water. Mao again was greatly venerated, and the gift of the mango was lauded as evidence of the Chairman's deep concern for the workers. Then everyone in the factory filed by and each worker drank a spoonful of the water in which the sacred mango had been boiled. After that, the revolutionary committee ordered a wax model of the original mango. The replica was duly made and placed on the altar to replace the real fruit, and workers continued to file by, their veneration for the sacred object in no apparent way diminished.

Here’s a picture of one of the mangos, from Stefan R. Landsberger’s fantastic collection of Chinese Cultural Revolution posters; the poster is based on a photograph taken very shortly after the gift of the mangos:
Figure 5: "The great leader Chairman Mao's treasured gift to the Workers' Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams of the capital - a mango" (1969). From Stefan R. Landsberger's collection.

 “Mango fever” then spread throughout the country:

In order to share the honour with workers and the revolutionary masses elsewhere, more replicas of the mangoes were made and sent around the country. All over the country welcoming parties were organized to receive the mangoes, and many work units enshrined the mango replicas for the masses to view in order to partake in the Chairman’s gift. Mao badges with the platter of mangoes and posters with revolutionary messages illustrated with the mangoes began to appear; a cigarette factory in the city of Xinzheng in Henan Province began producing a line of mango-brand cigarettes (still in production today); a film was made on class struggle using the Mao mango gift as a key symbol in the story line. In the months following Mao’s giving of the mangoes a mango fever descended upon China.

It’s worth noting that mangos were very rare in China at the time; few people would have seen one, so they were more likely objects of curiosity than one might have expected. A detail from another 1969 poster gives some of the flavour of the mango processions (though actual pictures of these events, one of which is included in Leese’s book, show the mangos inside covered reliquaries):
Figure 6: Detail from poster "Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!" (1969). From Stefan R. Landsberger's collection.

As Leese notes, most of these inventions (the mango rituals included) were not authorized by the CCP Centre, and many of the supposed leaders of the cultural revolution (e.g., Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing, and occasionally even Mao himself) tried to curb their practice, or at best only grudgingly authorized them after the fact. From their perspective, these “grassroots” practices and rituals were objectionable because they could not be controlled directly by them.

But it would be a mistake to think that because these practices were not directed from the top, that they were therefore genuine expressions of love for the Chairman. Motivations were of course various, and one does not want to preclude positive affect by definition– those who adopted the identity of “Red Guards” probably thought of themselves as sincerely in love with Mao, for one thing – but whatever people’s motivations may have been they were clearly dominated by the need to signal loyalty against a background of others who were also furiously trying to signal loyalty for their own manifold reasons. The clearest evidence of signalling behaviour is in fact the uniformity of the language used to flatter Mao (“down to the level of single phrases” over thousands of texts p. 184: "boundless hot love," "the reddest red sun in our hearts," etc.); the language of flattery was a code to be mastered, not a way of expressing deeply held emotions, as Leese rightly sees.

This is not to say that flattery was never sincere or reflective of great love for Mao; but its escalation came from the Red Queen race aspect of the situation, not from some deep well of emotion or from awareness of Mao’s charismatic qualities. And this Red Queen race was reinforced by the presence of a small core activist group – the Red Guards at first - that was quite capable of inflicting punishment, directly or indirectly, on those who did not conform. At any rate, as Randall Collins says: “Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs [interaction rituals] make people into sincere believers.” But lose the rituals, and you easily lose the group identities and emotional energy that drive action; sincere belief is rarely an independent driver of action.

It is also unsurprising that such “grassroots” loyalty signalling would tend to draw on various traditional scripts for demonstrating reverence or support, including scripts connected with the veneration of relics in Buddhism (as in the case of the mangos) or other forms of religious worship; the signal has to be recognizable to arbitrary others, and only religious scripts have sufficient universality for this purpose. Similarly, some of the manifestations of the cult (painting loyalty characters all over one’s house) can only be understood in terms of what I would call “magical thinking” – the use of words and objects to ward off evil pre-emptively. (But, unlike other forms of magical thinking, this stuff worked!). There is, in short, little need to appeal to tradition, “feudal” remnants, collective backwardness, or superstition to explain any aspect of the cult, contrary to the standard accounts of the cult offered by communist party theoreticians (and many people today).

This post is already long enough, but it is worth noting that the party seems to have tried to regain control over cult symbols by ratcheting the ritual level up – making the cult protocols more arbitrary – to foster unity in the factionalized atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution. The degree of ritualization was astonishing; Mao quotations came to be used in the most banal exchanges (answering the phone, buying produce, etc.); work units were required to “ask for instructions in the morning” before a portrait of Mao; etc. But the disciplinary function was clear: “[d]eviations from the prescribed routines were regarded as disloyal behaviour and thus potentially engendered drastic consequences” (p. 199). Once direct control over the symbols of loyalty was re-established, the party could move to gradually control flattery inflation and even engage in some controlled disinflation.

Though Leese does not put it this way, his overall story suggests that the Mao cult went through about six different stages, each of which can be distinguished by its own distinctive “inflationary” drivers on flattery of Mao. The first stage can be characterized as one of “controlled inflation,” lasting from the initial building up of the cult in the late 1930s and early 1940s to Stalin’s death, more or less. At this time, the cult was fostered by the entire party leadership and served primarily a mobilizing function, though the party was careful to prevent excessive praise of Mao; we might say that the initial cult building project shifted the base level of flattery upwards, but did not yet produce powerful inflationary pressures on the growth of flattery. The second stage, lasting from Stalin’s death to the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, more or less, can be characterized as one of slight flattery “deflation.” At this time, a number of events, including Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, prompted a certain amount of liberalization directed from above that led to a slight lowering in the level of flattery and a relaxation of inflationary pressures. With the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, the cult enters a stage of “sustained inflation,” and control over the cult shifts to Mao and his close associates, who promote it primarily for disciplinary purposes. This stage lasts until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, when they lost full control over the symbols of the cult. At this point (stage four) we have “runaway inflation”, driven by the need to signal loyalty in factional struggles and avoid punishment. By 1971, however, the party had regained some control over cult symbols, Lin Biao had fallen from grace, and the party engaged in some flattery deflation, helped somewhat by the death of Mao in 1976. (Interestingly, there was not a great deal of spontaneous public grief at the time; as Leese notes, most people were probably rather cynically disenchanted with Mao by then. The old rituals of the cult had lost their emotional power). Finally, one may add the resurgence of something like a posthumous Mao cult after 1989. Here cult practices are driven by many motivations – “disillusionment, nostalgia, renewed national pride, the incorporation of religious traditions, and commercial interests” (p. 262) lifting the background level of flattery from its nadir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but incapable of sustaining runaway flattery inflation in the absence of encouragement from the CCP Center, which can’t live with Mao, and can’t live without him.

A few general lessons may perhaps be drawn from this story. First, cults of personality basically never emerge from the spontaneous expression of emotion by a population, despite what dictators may have you believe. They are primarily tools of political control within networks of patronage relationships, as Leese rightly sees (hence, in practice, much more likely to emerge in highly authoritarian contexts). I have compared them here to the tools of monetary policy in the economic realm, insofar as they affect the average level of effort invested in signalling loyalty to a ruling group or person (the “flattery level”); but, as with monetary policy, cults can miscarry – in which case uncontrolled flattery inflation may result. Second, their effects are not produced by mere propaganda; interaction rituals are required to produce genuine emotional energy within specific groups, increase cohesion, etc. But the cult does not depend on the genuineness of anybody’s sentiments to work; it depends on the possibility of producing certain kinds of emotional pressures through group rituals. (As an aside, we lack a good “high pressure” political science and psychology; too much of our political science and psychology assume “low pressure” environments. But cults are high pressure phenomena, and attempting to understand them by means of the stories and concepts we use in low pressure environments is apt to lead us astray). Finally, the rickety Weberian apparatus of “legitimacy” and “charisma” is basically irrelevant to the explanation of cults. Leese’s book is mercifully free of those terms, except for the occasional sentence claiming that so and so’s actions “legitimized” this or that; but most of these can be safely ignored (all the sentence can possibly mean is “increased support”).

All in all, this is an excellent book – highly recommended if you are interested in the topic, though it does assume a great deal of background knowledge of modern Chinese history.