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Scenario #4

In September of 2007 I wrote an article for the ChinaSource Quarterly titled “China in Transition: Transition to What?” (full disclosure: at the time I was writing under the name Kay Danielson). The article was a summation of a conference that I had attended where we looked at different scenarios of what China might look like in 2020. Here’s how I described it:

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]

 In working groups, we identified four possible scenarios for China’s development. At the time, the year 2020 seemed like a long way off; but here we are, just six months away! I thought it would be interesting to look back at those four scenarios and see which one might be playing out.

Scenario #1

In scenario #1:

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.

I think we can move on . . .

Scenario #2

Scenario #2 was the “doomsday scenario” where:

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.

Fortunately, we are not there . . .

Scenario #3

In Scenario #3, China 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.

Not so much . . .

Scenario #4

That brings us to scenario #4. In this one:

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.[3] 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 we haven’t seen the promotion of Confucian ideology as strongly as we thought, I think we can all agree that it is this scenario that we see unfolding in China as we approach 2020.


  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. ^ 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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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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