View from the Wall

China in 2020


In 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing aroused the close attention of the various Western nations present in the country at the time, China was a completely poor, backward, weak nation.

A hundred years later, in the 21st century, there are very few people who do not care about China. China's economy is growing, its military is becoming stronger and its international influence is increasing. Across the world, there are Chinese people energetically pursuing their various activities. China is no longer synonymous just with Chinese restaurants featuring all kinds of tasty delicacies, or with cheap consumer goods sold in discount stores. China already possesses the power to seriously influence world markets; to affect the decisions of the United Nations; even to shoot down a satellite in outer space or to spread Chinese culture to every country of the world through Confucius Academies. Today, in all corners of the earth, one senses the presence and influence of China.

The Rising Economic Giant

In 2006, China's exports amounted to forty percent of its national GDP, and that proportion is bound to increase by a wide margin in the next decade. From the standpoint of manufacturing, China has an abundant labor force, low wages, skilled technology, good infrastructure and low environmental protection requirements. All of these encourage global manufacturers to move their capital and technology to China. Many high tech companies are moving their research and development centers to China since the cost of employing an excellent Ph.D. there is much lower than in the U.S.

China's infrastructures are not as favorable as those of other Asian countries, but compared with developing countries, they are not bad. Furthermore, the hardware gap between China and developed nations continues to narrow.

By 2020, more than half of China's cities will have attained the standards of a modern city. The urbanization of China's vast inland region is accelerating, and one third of its population will soon be urban residents. The huge consumer market created by urbanization will become the motivating force for production in China, and this force will continue to accelerate over the next twenty years.

In terms of military strength, China's military expenditures in 2006 made it number four in the world, and by 2020 it is completely possible that China will have the second largest military budget in the world.

China's stock market has attracted more than a hundred million investors. With the volume of transactions at the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges continuing to increase, the popular feeling is that the market has only just now entered the period of extended growth with its peak still far off in the future. Although it is not clear when China's stock market will reach or exceed the current volume of the New York Stock Exchange, there is no doubt that by 2020 it will have a significant influence upon the currency markets of the world.

Connected with the stock market is the fact that China's foreign exchange reserves have reached one trillion U.S. dollars. How to deal with these reserves has become a serious headache for China's leaders. By the year 2020, China will have easily become the world power with the largest foreign exchange reserves. At that point the best means of spending down these reserves might be for the Chinese to go all over the world buying up the best enterprises with hard currency. "China buying the world?" This is not a joke; to a large degree, it is already happening and will continue to become a reality.

How has China become such an economic powerhouse? It has taken the Chinese government about 30 yearsfrom 1978 to the presentto wake up the country's 1.3 billion people to the fact that economic development is the only hard fact that can be banked on. China's economic vitality has its origins in the aspirations of the Chinese people to change their living conditions and in the fundamental change in Chinese government economic policy. When the government ceased controlling and planning for every unit of production, the potential that was unleashed is difficult to comprehendmore than a billion people, wanting to do business, were added to the huge domestic consumer market. The era in which ninety percent of Chinese basically had no purchasing power came to an end; the market economy and protection of private property turned China into one of the world's largest countries that is not capitalist in name but which has a capitalist market economy. Today, the output of the state-owned economy accounts for only one-third of the national GDP. By 2020, this proportion will have fallen to an even lower level.

The rapid growth of China's economy has brought about a significant shortage of raw materials and energy as well as unprecedented pollution of the environment and a huge demand for qualified technical and management personnel. These negative consequences constitute the other side of China's economic development. In reality the Chinese government is taking various measures to bring the speed of growth under control in order to cool off the overheated economy. The question for China's economy over the next twenty years is not whether it can maintain high-speed growth but rather whether the growth will be steady and sustainable. Whatever the case, China is becoming a world economic giant and will undoubtedly become a full member of the G8 before 2020.

Hobbled Political Reform

In contrast to the rapid economic growth is the Chinese government's sluggish pace of political reform. Over these past thirty years, China has abandoned the planned economy but has undergone no fundamental political change. The centralized government structure with power concentrated in the hands of Party members at each level remains unchanged, the only commendable exception being a change in the allocation of power at the grassroots through village-level direct elections. By casting their ballots, the peasants can decide who will become the village head, but above the village level the township, county, city, provincial and central governments still maintain the old method of the Communist Party appointing leading cadres at each level. The inextricable tie between direct elections at different levels of government and the process of China's democratization is a gigantic challenge that the Party must face, but currently it is still far off.

In terms of social control, although the Party is still at the center of political power in China, it cannot help but adjust many of its former methods due to the numerous social changes brought about by the development of the market economy. For example, the country used to rely on the resident permit (hukou) system to control population shifts, with each person's hukou determining the scope of his or her activities and social status. The vast majority of the peasant population had no way to gain urban residence registration. Following China's reform and opening, the peasant labor force developed a surplus resulting in a floating population of around 100 million per year migrating from the countryside to China's cities; today, the hukou system basically exists in name only. Now one only needs money to be able to buy a home, find a job and live in any city. The country essentially has no means of controlling the floating population.

Moreover, the social control organizations that the Party had put into place have become completely debilitated in the wake of the unrestrained mobility of the labor force. This phenomenon of the gradual weakening of the Party's political control mechanisms will continue into the future. With a decreasing proportion of workers in state-owned enterprises and the mobility of trained personnel, people's attachment to the state-owned work unit (danwei) is gradually decreasing; meanwhile the actual level of personal freedom enjoyed by China's people continues to grow.

However, in terms of Chinese citizens' freedoms of association and speech there still has been no substantial systemic change. The Party and government's methods of controlling non-governmental organizations and public opinion are fundamentally the same. In recent years, state policy toward non-governmental organizations has, as a matter of fact, become stricter; without government background or higher level organizational support it is very difficult to register a real NGO.

In spite of this, due to the growth of the market economy there are exceptions. The large-scale urban housing market has turned many ordinary people into "proprietors" possessing the right to own private property; to protect their rights, many have started "owners committees." In fifteen years, if every urban neighborhood could establish such a committee, and every rural township and village grasped authority through a "village autonomous committee," China's civil society would see substantial progress.

Other than grassroots direct elections, in terms of what can be currently predicted for the basic socio-political structure over the next twenty years, it is unrealistic to expect to see certain political factions allowed and a multi-party system emerge, or a lifting of press controls and implementation of freedoms of speech or other such political structural changes. The Party understands very clearly that if China were to implement these changes, then it would never return to a one-party rule political structure which is, undoubtedly, the simplest way to maintain the status quo.

Concerning values and a guiding political ideology, the Party is gradually abandoning orthodox Marxism while at the same time quietly pondering the European Social Democrat Party position, drawing closer to the social democratic party.

The biggest difference between the Party and those who insist on following orthodox Marxist teaching is its strong watering down of the concept of social class, transferring the socio-political foundation of the ruling party from the worker and peasant laborers to the newly emerged middle class.

In the next twenty years, the Party will ideologically become a social democratic party but without pluralism; in social administration will increasingly rely on rule of law; in governance will pay more attention to the legitimacy of procedures. These changes are not the realization of constitutionalism in the Western sense but are rather tactics to maintain the Party's monopoly position in the face of pressure. China will continue to be Communist in name while earnestly searching for a future way out.

Indigenous Religion: The Direction of Spiritual Belief and Cultural Development

Culture and belief are an ancient problem in China; there is, to date, no obvious workable solution. China's economic take-off has not lessened, but in fact has deepened, the common people's crisis of faith. Official beliefs have already been thoroughly rejected by the majority. True believers in Marxism have become a minority faction in the truest sense; the replacement for official ideology is a spiritual vacuum or cultural chaos for the great majority of people. The Party urgently needs to address this crisis of faith.

Some advocate using Confucianism to fill the gap. Behind this effort to bring back Confucius is a narrow-minded radical nationalism that resists the process of globalization; the need for theoretical support for this strident nationalism thus constitutes the broad historical backdrop of the Confucian revival. Yet, when all is said and done, the gap between Confucian thought and contemporary society is too great; China is too far down the road in its race to modernize to make a mental about-face. China's modernization cannot be separated from modernization of thought. For this reason a return to Confucianism has no future. The government's tacit approval of Confucius veneration only indicates the Party's own perplexity and helplessness concerning the direction of spiritual and cultural development.

Then there is the great effort of Buddhism to gain tacit approval and support from the authorities. The director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Ye Xiaowen, went so far as to proclaim, "China will be a great Buddhist nation!" These are all an effort to fill the Chinese people's spiritual void while at the same time resisting the infiltration and growth of Western "foreign religion." Christianity in China already has several tens of millions of believers and continues to grow. Chinese religious policy will soon undergo major restructuring, from the former method of strict control to a pragmatic utilization of religion for official ends. The government will permit religion to play a role in charitable work, using religion to help ease some social contradictions. However, as soon as the religious policy changes, the greatest beneficiaries will by no means be Protestant Christianity and Catholicism, but rather the Buddhism and Taoism rooted in Chinese indigenous culture.

Chinese government religious policy will undoubtedly change over the next twenty years with more space opening up for Christian activity. However, Christianity will not become China's mainstream faith due to many problems in terms of cultural identification, the indigenization of theology, church participation in social service as well as the internal management of church affairs. Due to many historical and practical political factors, Chinese Christianity still lacks nationally accepted spiritual leaders and theologians, and the quality of leaders on a local level is mixed. Among the higher level elite and intellectuals in politics, economics and culture, there is still not a large number of converts to Christianity, while the church has yet to become the center of communal social activity at the grassroots or cultural and intellectual center of the village.

In 2020, both the Chinese government and the common people will be more tolerant of Christianity, and the problem of the legality of house churches will have basically been solved. At the same time, Buddhism will have become the most populous and most influential religion due to its special relationship to the government. Through different kinds of new religions and folk religion, popular religion will also see significant growth with unprecedented competition in the marketplace of belief.

One other change in the cultural sphere is the amalgamation of pluralism and nationalism. Although Confucianism will not be made a "state religion," still, Chinese national culture represented by Confucian thought will receive official support and in a planned way will permeate every aspect of the realm of thought, not only in China but worldwide. Chinese culture will, in a unique way, digest the cultural influences from the Westfashion, the internet, McDonalds and Hollywood will no longer be threatening scourges but will be part of everyday life in Chinese society. Attitudes toward family, marriage and sex will see huge transformations, and popular awareness about environmental protection, personal freedom and public health will grow. The demand for energy will force unprecedented conservation by the Chinese.

Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Chinese characters are still like an umbilical cord, linking Chinese people to their culture. "Chinese learning at the core and Western learning for its usefulness" is still the principle followed unconsciously by the Chinese. Young men and women who like wearing jeans, eating hamburgers and chatting onlineeven they, in the depths of their being, have something in common with the great Confucian master, Gu Hongming, who wore a pigtail at the turn of the 20th century.

China will not lose its place as a great civilization due to the rise of its economy or opening up to the outside world. Chinese characters will no longer be just the purview of sinologists but will be a required language in brochures advertising scenic tourist spots around the world. The most popular language possessing both beauty and practical value is Chinese; whether or not one is able to grasp Chinese will affect one's prospects in employment and trade. China will become more open and internationalized but will still possess clear traditional Chinese cultural characteristics.

A New Leader in the Global Village

By the year 2020 Sino-American relations will no longer be characterized by hostility over ideology or national defense, but neither will there be a "strategic partnership." The greatest contradiction between China and America will be in competition for natural resources and energy. The trade relationship between China and Europe will grow closer. China is destined to supersede Japan as the regional leader in Asia; the development of India will not constitute a challenge to China; and Hong Kong will increasingly possess the characteristics of China. Taiwan returning to the Mainland is out of the question, yet so is its becoming independent; the cross-strait relationship will grow more intimate as opposed to the two sides drifting apart. In order to amass more natural resources and open up more markets for Chinese goods, China will become involved in Africa on an unprecedented scale. Chinese goods will command a significant share of the market in the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America. Although China is not yet used to its new role as a leading member of the global village, nonetheless, China will expand the depth and scope of its participation in international affairs to the extent that it will not be possible to exclude China in the resolution of any major international issue.

The year 2020 is not far off, and like it or not, the rise of China cannot be altered. The question is: "What does the transformation of China mean to the world? What means should the world use to influence China's transformation?" These are questions that must be considered by all.

Translation from Chinese by Brent and Jasmine Fulton 
Image credit: GLPC_chieko_32 by Global Lives Project, on Flickr

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio