By Michael Lee, founder of the Southern African Chapter of the World Future Society, Institute of Futurology and author of Knowing our Future - the startling case for futurology.
Expect increased nationalism, including the flexing of military muscle, from China between now and 2050. Although I predict a surge in nationalistic sentiment and policy-making, one cannot rule out the possibility that a great new peaceful Chinese civilisation could emerge towards the middle of the century which would benefit, rather than harm, humanity.
China should succeed in landing a man and a woman on the moon before 2030 and this will be seen as a milestone in its quest for technological parity with the West. But China is almost certain to engage in more extensive military action, and build-up of its defence capability, as it seeks to establish strategic domination of Southeast Asia and searches for future supply routes for a variety of resources it needs for its growing and rapidly urbanising population, from marine fisheries to energy.
The Chinese word for crisis below indicates an imminent danger point.
Such a national crisis can lead either to disaster or opportunity if the danger is overcome. Since China is already the second largest economy and the next global superpower, its approaching danger-point will affect our future as well. China’s industrialisation, driving its spectacular economic rise, is gathering speed at a time when fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, which made the Industrial Revolution possible in the first place, start their permanent, long-predicted decline to zero availability. When key resources like industrial energy become scarcer, two things go up – their price and their strategic value. The price increase, in turn, has significant economic knock-on effects while the rising value of these resources invites intense geo-political competition. Herein lies the danger.
China’s industrialisation is occurring at the worst possible time for another reason: the world is faced with severe environmental threats as a result of climate change and ecological degradation largely caused by the process of industrialisation itself. A Catch-22 situation has emerged: if China does not complete its industrial development, it will never catch up to the West, but if it does succeed, the environmental and geo-political costs could be too high for all. China’s approaching energy and environmental crunch is about to become the world’s crisis.
China’s leaders have already started to use nationalism as an important political tool for governing the country’s phenomenal and challenging complexity in this Catch-22 predicament. Nationalism has become part of the guiding doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is now a core aspect of the ethos cementing the nation. It’s what lends legitimacy in the eyes of the population to what is effectively a one-party totalitarian state.
For this reason, Chinese nationalism is set to become one of the most important shapers of 21st century global politics. It could become as influential as German nationalism was to the previous century or British nationalism in the18th and 19th centuries. In the coming Age of Asia, the 20th century Cold War could be mirrored by a Warm War, rather than a Hot War, between China and America.
Historically, times of large-scale international change, such as when one empire declines as another supersedes it, are pregnant with danger. The Cold War, for example, took place against the background of the rise of American power and the defeat of German and Italian fascism, paving the way for communist expansionism in a changed world order. Western domination of world politics will slowly begin to decline over the next few decades, eventually to be eclipsed by Asian power.
The ethos of Chinese nationalism we are currently witnessing is likely to deepen as the country seeks to manage its escalating complexity. China is industrialising on an unprecedented scale at the very time when domestic and global energy resources required for industrial power are waning. The CCP will be engaged in a life-and-death struggle to manage the forces and processes of modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation. It will employ nationalistic policies to maintain its hold on power, as a one-party dictatorship, while its people demand greater freedom and recognition to go with their growing wealth and improving levels of education.
For the near-future, the world will have to learn to live with rising Chinese nationalism which I see as inevitable for at least another decade. An era of nationalism was bound to follow China’s long list of historical humiliations, including civil war, invasion, poverty and famine. And the nation is still haunted by the painful memory of the tragically misguided, failed Cultural revolution (1966-1976) of Mao Zedong. In short, after two centuries of lost progress, it is now time for this ancient nation to recover its national pride on the global stage.
The question the outside world should ask about this resurgent pride is: will China, as a consequence of its nationalism, become an increasingly repressive regime on a collision course with America and the rest of the world? Or is there a glimmer of hope that the Chinese powerhouse will become a superb civilisation of ultimate benefit to the human race in the way in which American power greatly accelerated social and technological progress in the 20th century?
It is estimated that China’s economy will surpass that of the USA as early as 2016 by producing 18% of total world output compared to 17.7% by the US. But underneath China’s glittering economic growth can be detected the underlying tensions of competing historical trajectories which are incompatible, namely the path of absolute political domination or the path of civilisational growth. The reason they are contradictory is that the former will curtail human freedoms while the latter will allow them to flourish. And it is true that Chinese nationalism will not be able to hold all the nation’s competing interests together forever. It is an ethos with a limited political shelf-life.
I would wager any time that human freedom is the one political aspiration with greater longevity and historic influence than nationalism. I therefore estimate the Chinese population will outgrow the CCP’s brand of nationalism, especially as education and internet become part of the lives of the new urban middle class which is already hundreds of millions strong in its mega-cities, cities and towns. At that point, the CCP’s hold on power would begin to disintegrate. I suspect that China would then undergo a devolution similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and that there will one day be “former states of the People's Republic of China” just as there are today Post-Soviet, or former Soviet, republics.
To get a broad understanding of the kind of future China is likely to experience in the first half of this century, one could construct three 2050 scenarios summarised below: the runaway train future, the juggernaut future and the Xanadu future. The fate of the 21st century is literally tied up with which future emerges for China between now and mid-century.
In the Runaway Train Future, China, obsessed with economic growth at all costs, and caught indecisively between the trajectories of evolving into a great civilisation or going deeper into a totalitarian nationalistic state, irretrievably damages its environment and the trust of its population leading to ecological and social collapse. In this scenario, China will self-implode, breaking down under its own weight and complexity. The Chinese Communist party would be unable to govern effectively following loss of control over the environment and its vast and diverse population.
Can the current system – the state, the CCP, the private sector and the environment– continue to support the growing economy and provide for the changing needs of the rapidly urbanising population in the midst of increased complexity?
If China’s consumption leads to the economy and industry outstripping the country’s carrying capacity – then its systems of order will collapse in an overshoot scenario.
In the Juggernaut Future, China becomes increasingly authoritarian, nationalistic and militarised, mercilessly crushing all domestic and international opposition in its rise to become an imperialistic global power.Wikipedia defines a juggernaut as a “literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable. Originating ca. 1850, the term is a metaphorical reference to the Hindu Ratha Yatra temple car, which apocryphally was reputed to crush devotees under its wheels.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juggernaut
This scenario would radically destabilise geo-politics and would lead eventually to a Chinese Revolution and the violent overthrow of the Chinese Communist state. East Asia would become a fierce battleground, globalisation would unravel and loss of life through World War 3 would surely exceed that of World War 2.
Will the CCP complete the political reform process it has initiated and introduce the rule of law, political freedom and constitutional protection, or will the party back-track and revert to totalitarianism and excessive nationalism? Will the power of nationalism prove to be an intoxicating and fatal temptation to the CCP for holding on to power, playing on the sense of historic humiliation still very much present in the Chinese collective psyche? Will the need for resources outside China, from food to energy, lead to a more aggressive foreign policy?
If China seeks to manage its complexity through a repressive authoritarian one-party system, a growing disconnect between the state and the urban population, with its improved education, internet access and increased wealth, will develop. This path would lead eventually to a Chinese Revolution, with China turning in on itself to produce mass disturbances and eventual civil war.
In the Xanadu Future, China evolves into a modern Middle Kingdom civilisation after centuries of historic humiliation. In this scenario, China establishes a new political system enshrining the rule of law and the core values of freedom, emancipating Chinese women, its religious population, and its labour force within this current generation. Chinese civilisation would be a global powerhouse of education, science, technology and innovation. China would once again become a world of wonders as it was for Marco Polo on his 13th century travels to Asia. The world would admire China, as a model of progress, much more than it ever feared it. This Xanadu Future would keep China in a strong position for centuries, not just for decades.
But will China prize its civilisation more highly than its own global power and growing wealth? Will the expanded role of the Chinese intelligentsia shift the nation decisively towards political reform, especially as the power of education becomes linked to greater freedom and equality? Will a long-term and historic vision prevail over short-term emotional needs for nationalistic assertion and military expansion?
If China embraces the values of Confucius at the level of the state, seeking to create a modern, sustainable, devolved and free Chinese civilisation, it will have a positive impact on world progress and ensure its own long-term survival.
The good news is that the groundwork for the creation of a great Chinese civilisation is already in place. In the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 bc), the pragmatic and benevolent values of a society are ingrained in rules of social conduct and personal discipline. It has been said that to be Chinese is to know how to behave in all circumstances.
China also has 2,000 years of history to draw on (in futurological terms, it has a “memory” of its Xanadu future). China has been called a civilisation trying to be a nation-state.
In addition, there is a powerful role for the extended family in Chinese society. Much enterprise and entrepreneurship is based on extended family businesses and clan conglomerates. The foundation of a civil society is also there, with 285,000 registered NGOs in the country. A modern Chinese civilisation would be built on these strong structures.
China is already on its way to evolving away from communism, albeit gradually, under leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji. There has been a private sector revolution. China has even joined the World Trade Organization, which will lead to reduced trade barriers and greater respect for intellectual property rights.
This is not to say that the CCP is beyond reversing this reform process, for example, under the influence of the new left and the communist youth league. For now, though, it is part of party doctrine to create a harmonious society using science and socio-economic development.
Financially, China is a nation of savers and has strong fiscal discipline compared to heavily indebted Western nations. It has good foreign exchange reserves of around $1 trillion and is the 2nd largest foreign creditor of USA, holding billions of dollars of US financial assets. These cash reserves would help to buy China time to continue its programme of political reforms and to extend its civil society.
A generous Chinese civilisation could make a compact with the world – a Pax Xanadu. In such a pact, China would provide peace, as an international power-broker, in return for extended trade and a secure supply of resources it requires, becoming a fully committed global citizen.
Clearly, China will only have one future, not three. It will need to decide which evolutionary trajectory to navigate, either the path to a great civilisation or towards doomed totalitarianism. These two trajectories are mutually exclusive. That is why the idea of a crisis, complete with critical, destiny-shaping choices, is apt. Being caught between these two paths would increase the probability of the Runaway Train Future with its inevitable breakdown of governance. The stakes could not be higher for China or for the world.
If China continues to reform its state, gradually providing greater freedom and constitutional protection for its citizens, as well as devolution of power to the provinces and local communities, and embraces once again at state level the ancient, internationally respected Chinese values of the philosophy of Confucius, it will dismantle from within its totalitarian apparatus and evolve towards the Xanadu ideal.
Note: Xanadu refers to the magical world Marco Polo found when he visited China in the 13th century and whose travels inspired these famous lines:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
From the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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