In the last forty years, China has reemerged as a tremendous geopolitical, economic, and technological power on the world stage. But the easy phases of China’s quest for wealth and influence are over, argue Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar and China Program Director Jean Oi in a new article published by The Washington Quarterly.
In this piece, drawing on the findings and insights of contributors to their forthcoming edited volume Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China’s Future (Stanford University Press, available May 2020), Fingar and Oi outline the daunting array of difficult challenges China now faces and explain why its future depends on the policy choices its leaders make in what will be seen as a watershed moment.
From, “China’s Challenges: Now it Gets Much Harder”
Some years ago, one of us had a running partner who wanted a bigger challenge than the dozens of marathons he had completed. When asked to describe his first 50-mile race, he replied, “The first 30 miles weren’t bad, but after that it got really hard.” China is approaching the metaphorical 30-mile mark in its developmental marathon. The challenges it encountered and managed effectively during the past 40 years were not easy, but they pale in comparison to those looming on the horizon. The way ahead will be more difficult, less predictable, and highly contingent on the content and efficacy of complex policy choices. The easy phases of China’s quest for wealth and power are over.
We begin with this cautionary note because so much of the new narrative about China’s rise posits capabilities and evolutionary trajectories that we find implausible. That China has done well in the past does not assure that it will do equally well (or better) in the future. That the Leninist party-state system adopted in the 1950s has proven sufficiently agile to manage the easier phases of modernization does not assure that it will be equally adept at meeting the more difficult challenges of a country being transformed by past successes and demographic change. The number, magnitude, and complexity of these challenges do not foreordain that China will stagnate, fail, or fall apart, but they do raise serious questions about the putative inevitability of China’s continued rise and displacement of the United States. China’s future is neither inevitable nor immutable; its further evolution will be shaped by internal economic and social developments, the international system, and above all, the policy choices of party leaders facing a daunting array of difficult challenges.
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We refer to China’s current approach as “back to the future” because it seeks to resuscitate institutions, methods, and rationales adopted in the 1950s and shelved during the period of reform and rapid modernization. We do not know why party leaders decided that it is in their — and thus China’s — interest to curtail or reverse policies that facilitated sustained growth and rapid improvement of living standards and China’s international image, but speculate that they hope doing so will buy time before incurring the risks (and for the elite, the costs) of fundamental reform.
Beijing has announced a number of very ambitious goals such as moving into the ranks of highly-developed countries by the centenary of the PRC in 2049, achieving global preeminence in key technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence, providing urban social benefits to most citizens, and building a number of green megacities. The likelihood of achieving all of the proclaimed goals is nil, but China will make substantial progress on some of them. It is impossible to predict which will succeed, which will fail, and which will flounder, but we can anticipate a mix of all three outcomes. Whatever the precise mix, it is likely to produce a China that is less prosperous and less powerful than predicted by the predominant narrative about where China is headed. Whether China’s leaders will risk tackling the difficult reforms that remain or continue to embrace key and thus far counterproductive structures and methods from the past remains to be seen. Whether the party-state system is able to maintain acceptable levels of growth and public satisfaction under the new conditions is also uncertain. The only certainty is that China can no longer ride the wave that helped along its economic growth and resultant capabilities for at least ten reasons.
Read the full text of this article via The Washington Quarterly.