Questions on China - and the world - in 2049

October 2049 will be the 100th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China. What will China look like a century after Mao's victory in 1949?

In Chinese eyes, 1949 marked a new dawn. In the words of Mao Zedong's inaugural speech, "the Chinese people have stood up; never will China be humiliated again".
Chinese military vehicles rumbling past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing on Sept 3 this year. PHOTO: REUTERS
Chinese military vehicles rumbling past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing on Sept 3 this year.
In Chinese eyes, 1949 marked a new dawn. In the words of Mao Zedong’s inaugural speech, “the Chinese people have stood up; never will China be humiliated again”. PHOTO: CAMERA PRESS

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.

Below, I quote at some length from a book written by Supachai Panitchpakdi and Mark Clifford that appeared at the very dawn (January 2002) of the 21st century and that to my mind succinctly and yet comprehensively makes the case:

"Whether it's looking out over the next few years or the next quarter-century, how the world's most populous country handles the many developmental challenges it faces will go a long way towards determining what kind of world we inhabit.

"Pick an issue - the environment, the military, international affairs or the global economy - China's choices will have a major impact on Asia and the world.

"If China makes the wrong decisions, the result will be chilling, not only for the country's 1.3 billion citizens but for many people beyond its borders as well.

"Conversely, a China that successfully makes the transformation to a relatively affluent, open society will be both an inspiration to other countries and a locomotive that will help to power the world's economies."

2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) - 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 20 years or so that it has moved to centre 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 Centre 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.

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 is also listed in no particular order of importance; they are all important and inter-related.


A number of countries have succeeded in rising rapidly, as has China since launching its reform programme, 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 emigrated 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.


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 industrialising China.

As China ages quite rapidly, the labour supply dries up. Apart from the lost vitality of youth, the ageing population will present quite a financial burden. By 2049 the median age in China will be about 45, 10 years older than that of India.

Will China succeed in meeting its quite daunting demographic challenge?


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 to dramatically increase its total factor productivity, in the process becoming less dependent on brawn power and much more on brain power.

Brain power 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 wrote recently, 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.


While China faces a number of daunting challenges on the domestic front, it also has a rather formidably challenging external neighbourhood 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 PRC include Tibet and Xinjiang? Hong Kong will presumably have been willy-nilly absorbed, but what about Taiwan?

Will 2049 include the celebration of "reunification"?


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 policymakers 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?


What about the multiple disputes between the PRC and Japan? For example, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the lack of Japanese admission of, 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 (aka the "third pole"). There are territorial disputes. China's naval advances and establishment of ports (the "string of pearls") in the Indian Ocean raise eyebrows.

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


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 (the established ruling power) can escape what scholar Graham Allison called The Thucydides Trap: Are The US And China Headed For War?

Drawing on lessons from Thucydides' opus on the Peloponnesian wars, Professor 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?


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 34 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 74 years. If the PRC were to have a comparable life expectancy, it would die in 2023.

And then what?

Democratisation? Or will there be "Putin-isation", that is, a Chinese version of Russian President Vladimir Putin stoking the fires of Chinese nationalism in a pseudo-democracy?


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 Sea, 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!

  • The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. This article first appeared on the Globalist website.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Questions on China - and the world - in 2049'. Subscribe