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China in Transition

Transition to What?

Transition was a major theme of China for the twentieth century. In that century China saw three major transitions. The first was the end of the dynastic rule in 1911. For the first time in over 2000 years, China was not ruled by an emperor. Everything changed. In 1949, after four decades of fledgling Nationalist rule and chaotic “warlordism,” the Communist Party came to power promising to build a new China. Again, everything changed. In 1979, after 30 years of disastrous policies had brought the nation to the brink of economic and social collapse, the Communist Party did an about face and launched the “Reform and Opening” Policy (gaige kaifang) that set China on the road to what it has become today. While not conceding an iota of its power, the party abandoned Marxist economics for market economics. Once again, everything changed.

For those of us who live and work in China, transition is part of the air that we breathe. All we have to do is walk around our neighborhoods. I have been in China since 1984 and would never have predicted the China that I live in today. Who would have thought that China would go from semi-legal free markets to Wal-Marts in just 20 years?

With China’s growing economic and military might, trying to anticipate or predict where China is going seems to be a popular activity of late. James Mann, former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times has just published a book titled, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (Viking Adult, February, 2007) in which he lays out three potential scenarios for China’s future. In April, the Brookings Institution hosted a conference dedicated to examining potential political transformations in China in the next 15 to 20 years.

In February, ChinaSource and the National Bureau of Asian Research hosted a conference near Washington, D.C. to look at a variety of scenarios for China in the year 2020. Using a combination of scholarly papers and lectures, scenario analysis participants from business, government and ministry were encouraged to think inclusively and flexibly about the future. It is tempting to see China’s development as a straight line. In other words, its recent march towards modernity and economic clout will inevitably continue unabated. Craig Denny, a scenario planning consultant from the Global Business Network (GBN) reminded us that “straight line thinking is risky thinking,” and that China has many social, political and demographic challenges which make its future uncertain. “China-focused organizations,” he said, “need to consider diversity of futures.”[1]

Each scholarly paper looked at a particular Chinese sector (economics, society, domestic politics and foreign relations) and then projected three potential scenarios for China in the next 15-20 years. From that, the participants looked at four general trajectories and for each of those, we then tried to identify drivers and “signposts” that might indicate which direction China is headed. Craig Denny defines signposts as “events, developments, trends or data points that can be identified and monitored, and whose presence may signal that a particular path is being taken.”[2]

I would like to identify each of the four scenarios and some key drivers or signposts that we should be watching for that might indicate that China is headed in a certain direction.

Scenario # 1: A Strong, Democratic China

In the first scenario, China has emerged as a constitutional democracy with competing political parties and ever-expanding pluralism. One important driver of this scenario would be the expansion of the middle class, creating a large population of stakeholders who are no longer content to have no say in the governance of the country. We would also likely see the growing influence of the returnees from the West as they enter higher level positions in the government.

In order for China to become strong and democratic, it will also need to successfully manage what Dr. Peter Bottelier refers to as the “second economic transition,” which he describes as “resetting the national development priority from raw growth to the pursuit of a harmonious society and sustainable growth.”[3] With a potentially shrinking work force, China needs to shift the basis if its economic growth away from labor intensive manufacturing to service and innovation driven industries. Successfully managing this transition would create a positive environment for an evolving democracy in China.

Finally we would most likely need to see the abolition of China’s two most authoritarian-sustaining systems and policies, namely the hukou system and the one-child policy. It is hard to imagine a strong democratic China where the population is still divided into peasants/urban dwellers whose rights are determined by those classifications and where the government still has limits on such a basic human right as child-bearing.

Scenario #2: Chaos and Collapse of Central Rule

In this scenario, a perfect storm of “bad stuff” triggers widespread unrest in the country. As the Communist Party’s inability to cope with the multiple crises becomes apparent, the regime’s creditability is undermined and central rule eventually collapses. Provinces or military regions may simply break off and go their own way, and the major ethnic groups in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia would most likely take advantage of the chaos to separate. It is the proverbial “doomsday scenario.” A likely driver for this scenario would be the failure of the second economic transition which leads to an economic slowdown or even collapse. Alongside an economic crisis, we may see the resurgence of ultra-nationalism and “Confucian fundamentalism” as the Chinese look outward to find blame for the country’s problems and inward to find solutions. In his recent novel, Qi, (B&H Publishing Group, 2005) David Aikman provides an interesting fictionalized account a radical Qigong sect may challenge Party rule.

Scenario #3: “Inner Party Democracy”

In this scenario the Communist Party remains in power in 2020. It is still an authoritarian party that allows no opposition, but within the party “democracy” flourishes as different factions (reformist, hard-line) compete for ascendancy. Successfully managing the second economic transition will be necessary to maintain the stability needed for this scenario to play out. It is also likely that we would see an expansion of socio-political liberalism and its accompanying expansion of civil liberties and creative expression. Further evidence might be the increased reporting in the Chinese press of the internal party debates on such matters as privatization, rule of law, Confucian fundamentalism and religious tolerance. Should the more reformist faction dominate, we could expect to see a loosening of restrictions on Christianity, and the church increasingly being seen as a positive force for social change.

Scenario #4: Resilient, Authoritarian China

As in scenario #3, the Communist Party remains firmly in control, but this time with a decidedly anti-liberal and anti-Western bent. One of the drivers of this scenario might be the failure to manage the second economic transition, resulting in massive unrest spreading to the urban areas. The regime would have no choice but to use a strong hand to respond to the domestic challenges it faces. In a bid to regain legitimacy lost due to its failed economics, the leadership would increasingly add Confucian ideology to its existing Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) ideology as a basis for legitimacy.[4] Evidence of this would be the promotion of Confucianism as a legitimate ideology (if not religion) by the regime and increasing appeals to nationalism and Chinese identity.

While there are some drivers and signposts that are clearly visible and point in a definite direction, at the same time there are a number of “wild cards,” outside factors that are so big that they have the potential to derail any of the trajectories. An obvious one would be the declaration of independence by the government in Taiwan, an event that would most likely require the Chinese government to risk everything to stop.

The demographics of China also have to be factored into any analysis of China’s future scenarios. The fertility rate, now below replacement level, means that the working population will begin to shrink. A reduced labor force could lead to massive economic disruption and is one of the reasons that China must restructure its economy. At the same time, China’s elderly population (65+) is exploding. This population will be supported by fewer people and, therefore, less government money as well. Another major factor is sex ratio imbalance with the number of male births greatly exceeding those of females. The lack of potential wives for so many young men has the ability to create much instability.

On the final day of the conference, the leaders of ministry organizations and foundations in attendance looked at what impact each of these scenarios might have on our ministries and tried to evaluate whether our ministries were capable of understanding and adapting to a changing China. Out of that discussion, four key questions and conclusions emerged.

  1. China is going to change. Are we as leaders able to see, understand and respond accordingly? Or, is our thinking and understanding of China still as it was, perhaps in the 80s or 90s? Ministries need to have processes and personnel in place that will help keep them current on China.
  2. Is a narrow focus on religion hindering our ability to see and understand the shifting realities of China? Whether we are involved in training of house church leaders or discipling university students, it is very easy to become so focused on our niche that we completely overlook the currents and trends that are influencing society at large.
  3. Are we too easily overwhelmed by the expansion of opportunities? As China changes and society continues to fray at the edges, the potential needs explode. From caring for orphans to educating migrant worker children to helping the elderly, the ministry opportunities are almost limitless. But we are not all called to be involved in every ministry. As these needs grow, it is important for ministries to have a clear sense of their own calling and mission, lest they be tempted to do everything.
  4. What threats and opportunities are presented to the church by each scenario? We need to have a clear understanding of how it can and should respond to the transitions that are likely to take place in the coming years.

While we can only anticipate and somewhat blindly predict the transitions that China will go through in the next 15 to 20 years, there is a promise that is not dependant on scenarios and that was given to us through Habakkuk: “Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the seas” (Hab. 2:13, 14). China will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, no matter what the nation transitions to.

Image credit: Construction in Leshan park by egorgrebnev, on Flickr


  1. ^ Denny, Craig. “Scenarios to Strategy” presentation at the National Bureau of Asian Research conference, “China 2020: Future Scenarios,” Arlie Center, Virginia, February 2007.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Bottelier, Pieter. “China’s Economy in 2020: The Challenge of a Second Transition.” Paper presented for the National Bureau of Asian Research conference, “China 2020: Future Scenarios,” Arlie Center, Virginia, February 2007.
  4. ^ Yang, Fenggang. “Cultural Dynamics in China Today and Possible Scenarios Around 2020.” Paper presented for the National Bureau of Asian Research conference, “China 2020: Future Scenarios,” Arlie Center, Virginia, February 2007.
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Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting.View Full Bio