China's Futures
PRC Elites Debate Economics, Politics, and Foreign Policy
Daniel C. Lynch


Preface: Competing Chinese Conceptions of the PRC’s Possible Futures

A March 24, 2014, Google search uncovered nearly 13 million Internet pages addressing some aspect of “the rise of China.” In the twenty years since William H. Overholt first published his prophetic book with that title,1 the world has become enthralled with the idea of an increasingly powerful People’s Republic growing economically at 9 percent a year, endlessly into the future. What would the implications of such a world-historical development be for the structure of international relations? Would Anglo-American civilization conclusively lose its (already fading) global preeminence? How might a power transition be managed peacefully, given the awesomely destructive weapons that both China and the United States possess?2 Would the transition be less problematic if economic reform and opening lead China onto a path of democratization? As recently as the 1990s, many observers considered that it would be impossible for the PRC to rise successfully and yet remain authoritarian. Even today, quite a few political scientists continue to insist that democratization is, if not inevitable, at least strongly likely, given China’s transformative economic changes and the associated social pluralization.3 If democratization is inevitable or at least highly likely, why should anyone be concerned that a successful Chinese rise might lead to the power transition becoming acrimonious or even violent? Or, from an entirely different angle, is it not possible that democratization would be more likely to occur in the event China’s massively complex mix of economic, environmental, and demographic challenges—unprecedented for any country in modern history—were to cause the rise to stall?

All of these questions (and more) are at the forefront of contemporary debate among political and other social scientists, international relations scholars, policy analysts and government officials, journalists, business people, NGO professionals, and everyday concerned citizens. China’s stunning economic successes invite intense and widespread rumination about how the PRC and the world will together change if the PRC’s rise succeeds—or, in other words, if China realizes “the China Dream” concept that Xi Jinping co-opted from left-leaning nationalist groups (but then reformulated) on his ascent to power in November 2012. Xi uses “the China Dream” to describe—albeit vaguely—the thoroughly desirable end state to which China’s development is inevitably leading, with success expected about 2050.4 Xi is far from alone in issuing confident predictions concerning China’s future, although his motivations are distinctive. Any casual survey of the global media and blogosphere creates the impression that nearly everyone is taking a stab at it, and certainly a large plurality of the world’s leading social scientists and public intellectuals are doing so. Some observers express their predictions with more conviction than others; often, the most confident “predictioneers,” to use Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s term, are social scientists.5 Although strongly self-confident predictions can be useful for helping to focus thought, stimulate debate, and shape research agendas, they should always be treated with caution and skepticism. The starting point of this book is the simple observation—elaborated in —that no matter how scientific a predictioneer’s model may appear to be, the future can never be known, because (1) there are too many factors in play that will affect it, and (2) even if the factors could be mapped and measured, human agency (“free will”—critical though circumscribed), along with chance events, will always intervene to make predicting with reliable accuracy impossible.

On the other hand, it would be foolish and irresponsible to abandon all efforts at thinking systematically about what the future may bring—or, in our case, which of several plausible, but competing, developmental trajectories China might take in the specific subarenas of the economy, politics, public culture, and foreign policy. As elaborated in Chapter 1, thinking through different possible trajectories and their varying implications can be useful for formulating policy (for government, business, or any other affected entity) in the present—not only in the negative sense of preparing for the worst but also to spot those developments that seem to provide opportunities for encouraging positive change. Analyzing current trends for insight into which of the competing trajectories seems the most probable is, obviously, not the same as analyzing the future itself, which, by definition, is impossible—because nothing in the future has happened yet.

To date, very few of the observers struggling to get a handle on China’s developmental course have devoted their energies to analyzing systematically the varying images of the future circulating within China itself; that is, the discussions and debates concerning China’s possible trajectories that the PRC’s huge cadre of smart, well-informed, hard-working, and public-minded policy analysts (whether in academia, think tanks, government, or business) engage in every day. In any country, images of the future—or competing conceptualizations of the national trajectory as manifest in economics, politics, culture, foreign policy, and other issue-areas—help to shape real-world policy making (and private sector decision making) in the present and consequently the trajectory itself. Especially in a still superauthoritarian country like China, images articulated by elites (broadly conceived) are likely to be highly valuable—even though so far underexploited—windows on what the future might hold. Researchers can study these images in an effort to understand different possible trajectories even if the analysts who circulate them are acting within the boundaries of broad Party guidelines. This is because of the near-certainty that the authoritarian power center will exert the dominant influence over which of several different paths China ends up taking. So whether intellectual (or other) elites affect the leaders’ thinking, or, in contrast, the leaders shape the elites’ research and assessment agendas, either way, the images elites circulate can serve as a mirror on the policy choices the power center is most likely to face.

Elite images are obviously not the only important factor shaping a country’s developmental trajectory. Material factors related to geography, demography, the economy, and the environment are also critically important, along with exogenous factors originating in foreign countries or global society. But this book assumes that what high-profile figures within the Chinese establishment think and say about their country’s developmental trajectory, along with their recommendations for how the trajectory should be altered to achieve a more desirable future, can be used as potent indicators providing insight into what the future may become. It should make a significant difference that, as explained in Chapter 2, the overwhelming majority of China’s economists vigorously criticize current economic arrangements and demand liberal alternatives; while, as elaborated in Chapters 5 and 6, the country’s foreign policy specialists are mostly tough-minded realists convinced of the absolute rightness of China’s international claims and the inevitability of the national rise succeeding. It would equally make a difference (in the opposite direction) if a majority of Chinese political scientists were calling for—and saying they expected—democratization, while the majority of international relations specialists were cautioning that because China’s territorial and other contested claims are “constructed” rather than absolute, China must compromise with neighboring countries and Taiwan for the sake of global stability. To repeat, this is not to argue that elite images invariably shape policy, or that Chinese intellectuals determine the CCP’s policy agendas. Under certain circumstances this surely does happen—Party-state leaders constantly solicit the views of policy-oriented intellectuals—but ultimately the CCP sets the boundaries and shapes the agendas of discourse.6 The critical point is that even when Chinese analysts are simply reflecting the demands of the Party Center in the images of the future they create and circulate, studying these images—how they reflect what is expected and what (possibly in contrast) would be normatively desirable—can be highly useful in trying to assess what the trajectory is likely to become, precisely because the elites are operating inside parameters imposed by the (still) awesomely powerful Party-state.

Each of Chapters 2 through 6 addresses Chinese thinking about a particular issue-area and how current trends either are or are not, in the minds of Chinese elites, leading to a desirable future. Chapter 2 examines the economy and demography. Chapter 3 focuses on the structure and dynamics of the political system. Chapter 4 turns to communication and culture construction, or the new “network society” made possible by rapid media and telecommunications development. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on different dimensions of China’s trajectory in international relations. The concluding Chapter 7 outlines various possible scenarios for China’s future (the next decade or so), approaching the task by tying together the core findings of each of Chapters 2 through 6 and briefly addressing more recent developments such as the pledges made concerning economic reform at the CCP’s “Third Plenum” in November 2013 and the near-simultaneous declaration of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” over most of the East China Sea. For this is the central tension in the Chinese images uncovered in this research: Some elites, especially economists, view China’s rise as perched precariously on the edge of a devastating crisis, which would center on a sharp slowdown in economic growth even if complex, risky, and divisive reforms are implemented; whereas others, especially international relations specialists (though not all of them), express a heedless hubris that nothing could stop China’s rise; therefore, the time has come to assert China’s CCP-defined national interests much more boldly and vigorously than at any point since at least the mid-1990s. These two groups do not even seem to talk to each other, though the economists are far more aware of (and worried about) the brashness of the IR specialists than the other way around. Through systematic reading and interviews, one arrives at the inescapable conclusion that most IR scholars do not even bother to concern themselves with what the economists are writing, even though the economists’ warnings of inevitable trouble strike at the core of the nationalist IR specialists’ boundless optimism, which fuels or reinforces risky policy choices. This central tension and its implications will become evident in the chapters to follow.


1. Overholt (1993).

2. Some expect that the two countries’ nuclear arsenals will decisively ensure that the transition—assuming it continues—remains peaceful, through the logic of mutual deterrence.

3. See Chapter 3 on political change and Chapter 4 on China’s metamorphosis into a “network society.”

4. For a wonderfully rich description and analysis of the plurality of Chinese dreams, as articulated by China’s “citizen intellectuals,” see Callahan (2013).

5. Bueno de Mesquita (2009). (I discuss his book at length in Chapter 1.)

6. See Zhu Xufeng (2009) and Jakobson and Knox (2010).