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Guest Column: China's fantasy politics

This micro-column was written by an outside contributor. It was first published in Flagship, our daily newsletter that distills what’s happening in the world into a concise, insightful morning read.

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Damien Ma is the co-founder and managing director of MacroPolo, a China-focused think tank. He can be found at @damienics.

Title iconThe micro-column
New Politburo Standing Committee
REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Don’t make predictions about Chinese politics. That’s the lesson from our think-tank’s month-long “fantasy football”-style competition to forecast the “Chinese election” before it concluded last weekend.

Of the more than 1,000 players who played — China specialists and casual observers — not a single person correctly predicted all seven members of the Chinese Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee, the peak of political power in China.

So it turns out the political scientist Phil Tetlock’s longstanding insight holds: On average, expert predictions don’t outperform non-experts’ results.

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But maybe it’s not just that expertise didn’t matter, and instead that expertise was neutralized by the paradigm shift that has taken place in China. Basically, expert or not, it was nearly impossible to win our game.

This wasn’t a normal Communist Party congress. The presumed norms that guided and bounded Chinese elite politics fell away. We put too much stock in assumptions about the Party’s commitment to a de facto retirement age, for example, when what counted most was proximity to Xi Jinping himself. Above all else, loyalty and trust were the determinative factors.

Rather than fixate on the outcome, perhaps the more interesting question is how the political system and the Party allowed such a surprise to happen in the first place. That is going to take some serious expert reflection and dissection.

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