A report entitled “China 2020,” was recently released by the NYU Center for Global Affairs, presenting three scenarios based on different trajectories China might follow.

NYU Center for Global Affairs Releases Scenarios Report on the Future of Chinese Government and Policy





The third report in the CGA Scenarios series, titled “China 2020,” was released today by the NYU Center for Global Affairs, a division of the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the CGA Scenarios Initiative is a mediated workshop series designed to produce cross-disciplinary, forward-looking thinking on countries and issues critical to U.S. national interests.


“China 2020” presents three alternate future scenarios based on different trajectories China might follow out to 2020: “Fragmentation,”  the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces escalating demands from a range of actors who have slowly chipped away at its legitimacy and capacity, placing the very survival of the CCP in question; “Strong State,” having engaged its best and brightest to successfully address the many challenges faced by China, the CCP remains highly autocratic, making extensive use of technology to improve government performance and suppress dissent; and “Partial “Democracy,” the CCP is able to maintain a powerful position only by accommodating greater popular demand for openness and participation in shaping China’s political and economic agenda. The narratives were developed based on insights shared by some of the most knowledgeable China observers in the field, at an intensive, daylong workshop convened at the CGA in October 2009. 


“The China 2020 session revealed what the panel believes to be three plausible but very different outcomes for China, each with distinctive implications for U.S. interests,” said Michael Oppenheimer, clinical associate professor at NYU Center for Global Affairs, and the director of the CGA Scenarios project. 


“We brought together an exceptional group, representing a wide range of nationalities and skills, including sociologists, businessmen, economists, NGO activists, academics and former government practitioners. The diversity of the gathering minimized mirror imaging and the policy or cultural bias that often occurs, and generated vigorous debate on forces for change and pivotal issues,” Oppenheimer continued.


Common across all three scenarios are the choices faced by the Chinese government as they respond to future challenges, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant, public revolt against continued endemic corruption, a terrorist attack and a natural disaster. These choices are played out in the context of several trend lines already in place; unsustainable economic growth, system–wide corruption, ethnic tensions, increasingly severe weather events, changing demographics, advances in information technology, and a growing middle class that expects each year to be better than the last. While variation in decision making can change China’s trajectory, the survival of the Chinese Communist Party ultimately depends on its close attention to the evolving sources of its legitimacy. The grand bargain with the Chinese people – which affords uncontested power to the CCP – is no longer guaranteed by high economic growth but incorporates a growing expectation of social justice.   


The “Fragmentation” scenario suggests a range of indicators that cumulatively might lead to Party collapse. The CCP fails to make the necessary changes to its economic and fiscal policies, it fails to address corruption, it fails to address the sources of inequality and it becomes increasingly negligent in the discharge of both its national and international obligations.  The narrative builds to a crescendo in 2020, following a decade during which state capacity has been significantly eroded. The country is faced with a national disaster and an international crisis, in the build up to a transition in power. State capacity is overwhelmed and tensions within the CCP leadership spill over into the public domain.


In the “Strong State” scenario, the CCP consolidates and strengthens its position by successfully managing the range of challenges faced, not necessarily solving them. It rebalances the economy towards services and less energy intensive industries, it takes a very hard line against corruption and introduces new economic and social policies targeted at rural development and in particular at the western provinces. While using a heavy-handed top down approach, it tightly manages public opinion by creating the illusion that the people’s concerns are heard. Technology becomes a critical enabler of the Strong State, as the culture of the CCP evolves from one of patronage to one based on meritocracy.   Central to the progression of this scenario is the use of polls by the CCP to track overall public satisfaction with government policy and with the performance of individual members.


Finally, in the “Partial Democracy” scenario, the CCP is forced to engage with civil society and business leaders to supplement state capacity where clear gaps emerge – specifically in the aftermath of a major nuclear accident in Guangdong province. The CCP calculates that the controlled dilution of central power may be the only viable way forward. This opening of sorts is extended to the internal governance of the CCP with a much broader array of actors actively engaged in the formulation of China’s economic and social policies. While still distant from the Western concept of democracy, the Chinese people see their system as increasingly participatory, which further reinforces CCP legitimacy.


The full report, along with the Scenarios Initiative’s first two reports, on Iraq and Iran, can be downloaded here.


The Scenarios Initiative, which is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, aims to raise the quality of U.S. foreign policy by improving the way U.S. policymakers think about and react to change. Through its scenario workshops, publications, briefings, and curriculum development, the Initiative aims to produce imaginative, expert forward analysis of global conditions affecting US interests.  Future Scenarios panels will assess and develop plausible alternate futures for Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.


The China 2020 workshop and report included input from several leading minds in Chinese and global policy, including Daniel Ahn, Director of Macroeconomic and Portfolio Strategies Research, Louis Capital Markets; Nayan Chanda, Director of Publications, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization; David Denoon, Professor of Politics and Economics at New York University; John Frankenstein, Associate Professor, Brooklyn College, City University of New York; Taylor Fravel, Cecil & Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science, MIT; Dru Gladney, President, Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College; François Godement, Professor of Political Science, Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris; Roberto Herrera-Lim, Director, Asia Practice, Eurasia Group; Nazrul Islam, Senior Economics Affairs Officer, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations; Cheng Li, Director of Research, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution; James Mulvenon, Director, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, Defense Group, Inc; Stephen Orlins, President, National Committee on United States-China Relations; Dudley Poston, Professor of Sociology, Abell Endowed Professor of Liberal Arts, Texas A&M University; Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China, Council on Foreign Relations; Julian Wong, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress; Geng Xiao, Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing; Qiang Xiao, Director, China Internet Project; and Wei Zhang, Lecturer in Chinese Economy, University of Cambridge, England.




About the NYU Center for Global Affairs


The NYU Center for Global Affairs, one of several comprehensive academic divisions within the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU-SCPS), offers graduate and continuing education programs in global affairs and hosts a series of vibrant public events on related topics. Established in 1934, NYU-SCPS is among the 15 colleges and schools that comprise New York University, one of the largest private research universities in the United States.  Through its faculty, curricula, and vibrant professional and academic networks, NYU-SCPS captures the expertise of key sectors where New York leads globally: Real Estate; Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management; Global Affairs; Philanthropy; Communications Media, Publishing, Design, and Digital Arts; Business, Marketing, and Finance; and the Liberal and Applied Arts, among others. Rigorous and timely programs in these and related areas attract undergraduate and graduate students immersed in university life, working professionals in 14 graduate degrees, and New Yorkers of all backgrounds enrolled in approximately 2,500 continuing education courses, certificate programs, conferences, and seminars annually. NYU-SCPS is widely considered to be the most complete example of NYU’s founding commitment to be “In and Of the City” —and In and Of the World.


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