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October 2049: The 100th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China

What will China look like a century after Mao’s victory in 1949?

August 29, 2019

What will China look like a century after Mao’s victory in 1949?

China is the most important country in the world in this first half of the 21st century.

I know this statement can rankle people – especially those from countries vying for that position. But first, it does not imply any value judgment. And second, it would appear to be pretty incontestably true.

2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China – whether or not the PRC then still exists in its present form.

1949, in Chinese eyes, marked a new dawn, the end of the “era of humiliation.” In the words of Mao Zedong’s inaugural speech, “the Chinese people have stood up; never will China be humiliated again.”

Mao held true to his promise. But for most of the ensuing decades, China was somewhat of a sideshow in the international arena. It is only in the last twenty years or so that it has moved to center-stage and indeed has become something of a stupor mundi (astonishment of the world).

Peering through the coming decades, how can we try to fathom what kind of China – hence what kind of world – will emerge by 2049?

In 2013, the World Bank, in association with the Chinese Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC), published a seminal report entitled: China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious and Creative Society. The report sets out the nature and potential reward of the vision:

If China seizes its opportunities, meets its challenges and manages its risks, by 2030 it will become: a high income economy, with harmonious social, environmental and global relations, driven by creativity and the power of ideas.

Pretty good!

2013 is also the year that, in a speech in Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping set out his vision of the New Silk Road, which has since become known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).

Combining these two visions, there should be a lot to celebrate in 2049 both for China and ipso facto for the world. In the interval, however, there are a lot of questions that will need to be posed and answered,

The list below is by no means exclusive. It it also listed in no particular order of importance; they are all important and inter-related!

2049: Middle-Income China or High-Income China?

A number of countries have succeeded in rising rapidly, as has China since launching its reform program, from low income to middle income.

The talk of the global town in the 1950s and 60s was Brazil, which was also somewhat of a stupor mundi in its day. Indeed, many Japanese immigrated to Brazil for better opportunities than they thought they could find in a postwar Japan!

But then Brazil got stuck at mid-income-level and has remained there. Indeed, over the last half-century the number of economies that have managed to escape the middle-income-trap are very, very few: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

Will China escape the middle-income trap?

China’s 2049 Demographics

That question will, in part, be answered by the one on Chinese demographics. China’s boom occurred in good part thanks to the migration of young (mainly female) workers from the countryside to toil in the urban factories in industrializing China.

As China ages quite rapidly the labor supply dries up. Apart from the lost vitality of youth, the aging population will present quite a financial burden. By 1949 the median age in China will be about 45, ten years older than that of India.

Will China succeed in meeting its quite daunting demographic challenge?

Brain over Brawn in 2049?

And those two questions will be very much determined by whether China will succeed in moving rapidly up the value-chain by becoming innovative.

Indeed, as the World Bank/DRC report put it, this depends on whether China becomes “driven by creativity and the power of ideas.”

This would allow China dramatically to increase its total factor productivity in the process becoming less dependent on brawn power and much more on brainpower.

Brainpower will also need to be applied urgently to tackling China’s environmental inferno.

The very high levels of pollution are, among other things, poisoning China’s waterways, causing acute diseases, resulting in militant social unrest and the exodus of many Chinese for bluer horizons – which include the US. Indeed as Winston Mok recently wrote the US is a net and significant beneficiary of China’s brain drain.

Much intellectual power will be needed to make China green by 2049.

China’s Neighbors and Satellites in 2049: Close or Far?

While China faces a number of daunting challenges on the domestic front, it also has a rather formidably challenging external neighborhood to tackle. The Asia Pacific Region is a cauldron of territorial disputes, ethnic tensions, historical grudges and resource stresses (especially water).

This applies, too, within China’s own borders. Will the celebrations in 2049 of the People’s Republic of China include Tibet and Xinjiang? Hong Kong will presumably have been willy-nilly absorbed, but what about Taiwan?

Will 2049 include the celebration of “reunification”?

What of North Korea in 2049?

Moving beyond the borders, it is frequently noted by political scientists that the PRC’s one and only ally is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, aka North Korea).

Yet, relations between Pyongyang and Beijing can hardly be described as smooth or harmonious – “with allies like DPRK” Beijing’s policy makers lament, “who needs enemies?” Paradoxically the Republic of Korea (ROK, aka South Korea), the target of the DPRK’s unrestrained hatred, is one of the PRC’s most valuable economic and technological partners.

Will there still be a North Korea in 2049? Will it continue to be a millstone around the PRC’s neck?

Japan and India Relations with China in 2049

What about the multiple disputes between the PRC and Japan? For example, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the lack of Japanese admission, let alone contrition for the many atrocities committed during the Pacific War (1937-1945) and so on.

What about China-India ties? Smiles and exchange of cuddly visits notwithstanding, China and India can hardly describe their relationship today as one based on trust.

This has to do with many things: China controls the waters flowing into India from the Tibetan Plateau (a.k.a. the “third pole”). There are territorial disputes. China’s naval advances and establishment of ports (the “string of pearls”) in the Indian Ocean raises eyebrows.

Moreover, Beijing retains close ties with Islamabad. China, India and Pakistan are all three nuclear powers, but neither Pakistan nor India have accepted or become members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

South China Sea and the US Military in 2049

Geopolitically, arguably the hottest spot is the South China Sea: will it have become a Chinese lake in 2049? Will it be open to international navigation? Will it have triggered war?

The last question is the most important of the 21st century; it relates to whether China (the rising power) and the United States of America (the established ruling power) can escape what scholar Graham Allison called The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?

Drawing on lessons from Thucydides’ opus on the Peloponnesian wars, Allison demonstrates how in the majority of historical cases “in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed.” Can it be avoided this time, for a change?

Will the PRC even still exist?

All of these questions lead to what is perhaps the most intriguing. Will the PRC be around for its own 100th anniversary?

The Soviet Union should have been celebrating its 100th anniversary of the October Revolution very soon: in 2017. Yet, it won’t. We are thirty-four years away from when the 100th anniversary of the PRC should be taking place.

The Soviet Union, which to my generation seemed eternal, in fact had a rather short life of seventy-four years. If the PRC were to have a comparable life expectancy, it would die in 2023.

And then what? Democratization? Or will there be “Putin-ization,” i.e., a Chinese version of Vladimir Putin stoking the fires of Chinese nationalism in a pseudo-democracy?

How to make it to 2049

The answers to these questions will of course very much depend on whether the Chinese leadership is able to undertake the necessary reforms that will make the vision set out by the World Bank and DRC for 2030 sound realistic.

As things currently stand, quite a large leap of faith is required. They will also very much depend on what kind of global economic and geopolitical environment will prevail.

This is especially true in respect to policies emanating from Washington. While territorial disputes, particularly the South China, will matter a lot, what about issues relating to trade and investment?

As things stand at the end of 2015, the prospects for an open, inclusive and equitable global trade regime are not particularly auspicious. There is instead a good deal of brinkmanship and trade conflicts could be looming.

We certainly live in interesting times!


Will China escape the middle-income trap before the 100th anniversary of Mao’s revolution?

Will China succeed in meeting its quite daunting demographic challenge by 2049?

Will 2049 include the celebration of “reunification” of mainland China with offshore Chinese lands?

Can China avoid open military showdowns with Japan, India or the United States before 2049?

Will the People’s Republic of China be around for its own 100th anniversary? If not, what will be?