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Looking Ahead: Which China?

China today has been variously described as an emerging superpower, an economic miracle, a totalitarian regime, a corrupt kleptocracy, a regional hegemon, a bellwether of the future, and a victim of its past. Each of these narratives contains a kernel of truth, yet none by itself begins to do justice to the complexities of China.

Anticipating where China is headed is even more problematic. Although one may point to major trends and say with some confidence that these are the drivers that will shape China's future, there are too many variables to be able to predict with any certainty what is ahead. Just as a collection of narratives is more useful than a single descriptor in getting a handle on China today, so it is helpful to think of possible scenarios when trying to imagine where China will be tomorrow.

ChinaSource and the National Bureau of Asian Research teamed up in 2007 to look at four such scenarios. With the help of a half dozen scholars from various disciplines, we developed four plausible pictures of where China could be in the year 2020. None will likely prove entirely accurate, but taken together they suggest a range of options, depending on the relative impact of various drivers of change. The scenarios also suggest helpful "signposts" or indicators that one or another scenario is becoming more likely.

Standing at the midpoint between when these scenarios were first conceived of and the target date of 2020, one can get a sense of which of the scenarios are more accurate. Yet today, just as seven years ago, any of the four scenarios is still plausible. Together they can provide a useful framework for anticipating what may be ahead.

Here are the four scenarios:

A Strong, Democratic China. This scenario assumes major political change resulting in a multiparty system. China's rising middle class plays a key role, as does China's economic transition from a strong growth orientation, heavily dependent on manufacturing, to a more sustainable economy emphasizing the service and information sectors. For this scenario to play out the systemic urban/rural inequality enforced by China's household registration (hukou) system would need to be addressed.

Chaos and Collapse of Central Rule. In this scenario a "perfect storm" of ethnic unrest, regional conflicts, and a failed economic transition conspire to undermine the legitimacy of China's ruling party.

Inner Party Democracy. The ruling party allows the emergence of various interest groups representing somewhat competing agendas while still maintaining authoritarian rule. By opening up more space for social discourse, encouraging private initiative, and protecting individual rights it is able to marshal the country's resources to deal effectively with social and economic challenges.

Resilient, Authoritarian China. The "Beijing consensus" is reaffirmed as China's leaders resist pressure, both foreign and domestic, to change. An ideology rooted in Marxist-Leninism, Mao thought, and Confucianism undergirds this confident regime as it stifles dissent at home and pushes its agenda abroad.

Each of these scenarios portends possible threats to the growth of the church in China, yet each also suggests unique opportunities. Find out more about these scenarios and what they could mean for you here.

Image by Fabio Achilli, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio