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We Don’t Know “Nuthin’”

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been following the proceedings of the 19th Party Congress from my perch in snowy Minnesota. It’s a far cry from the last Congress in 2012, when I was living in Beijing, and thus able to experience the silliness that can take over life in the capital of the Middle Kingdom when the Party comes to town. 

In the absence of on-the-ground presence, however, I have attempted to read everything I could get my hands on about the meeting. Some were straight news reports (this or that happened), some were background analysis (attempting to put the meeting into historical perspective), others were predictive (this is what it means and what will happen as a result). 

Based on my reading (and some personal knowledge and experience), in my post last week I highlighted five key observations of the just finished Party Congress. This post highlights the sixth observation that I hinted at in that post. 

In a nutshell, it’s this: We don’t know "nuthin’."

I suspect that anyone who deals with or analyzes China (even the so-called “experts”) knows (or at least suspects) that deep down we really know very little about what is going on. We think we have a clue, but we really don’t. That’s why when I read the post over at ChinaFile titled “Why Do We Keep Writing About Chinese Politics As if We Know More Than We Do?, I found myself saying “yes!”

Writing of the reporting on the Congress meeting, the authors say, 

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.

In other words, we don’t know "nuthin!”

While the authors write specifically about the political machinations and inner workings of the Communist Party, I found myself thinking that their analysis rings true for those of us who try hard to discern what drives the Party’s attitudes and policies regarding religion. What are our assumptions and guesses about motivations? Are they correct? Do we even have any way of confirming or refuting them? 

Or do we simply know “nuthin?” 

A few years back the government in Zhejiang Province launched what has come to be known as the “cross-demolition campaign." For many the assumption was that it signaled the start of a nationwide crackdown on Christianity. But did it? Was there real evidence for that? Was that the driver? Or was it something more mundane and local, such as a new local official being annoyed at seeing so many prominent crosses? Was the policy objective cleaning up unsightly and, in some cases, illegal structures? Or was it to drive Christianity back underground? Our own (and varied) assumptions led us to different conclusions. But we don’t know; all we can do is guess.

Earlier this year, the new Overseas NGO Law went into effect. Was the motivation to bring order and law to a sector of government/society that was still on the chaotic side? Or was it to begin ridding Chinese society of pesky foreign NGOs? How we answer depends, to a large part on our assumptions about the government’s attitude toward the rule of law and towards foreigners. But we don’t know; all we can do is guess. 

Early next year, the new Regulations on Religious Affairs will go into effect. Why these new regulations and why now? Again, we’re faced with the question of motivation. Is it to destroy the burgeoning house church movement? Is it to prevent the spread of radical Islam? Is it to bring religion under Party control? We don’t know; all we can do is guess.

The authors of the article provide helpful advice, namely that we need to “interrogate our own thought process:”

What assumptions are we making about the evidence we have? What additional information would we need to confirm or refute those assumptions? And what other conclusions are compatible with the evidence that we do have?

As we weather the “new normal” of China under Xi Jinping and seek to make sense of all that is going on, these are good words of advice.

So observation #6: we don’t know “nuthin’!”

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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