China—the New Hegemon

by Rasmus Reinvang and Bjørn Brunstad

Rasmus Reinvang (Danish, born 1970) has a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Oslo (Norway), and has worked with environment and sustainable development policy in Scandinavia, the EU, China and India for fifteen years. He is currently partner at the social science consultancy Vista Analyse in Oslo, Norway. Rasmus has previously worked for the international engineering and consultancy company Pöyry, the environmental organization WWF in China and Norway, and taught at Copenhagen University (Denmark) and the University of Gdansk (Poland). He is especially interested in issues of sustainable development including environmental and climate policies, urban development, corporate social responsibility, future studies, development, the rise of China and India, and also Buddhism. Rasmus lives in Oslo, where he is also engaged in municipal politics.

Bjørn Brunstad (Norwegian, born 1973) is a foresight specialist with twelve years of academic and practical experience with scenario planning, paradigm foresight, and other holistic and dynamic tools for strategy making and mobilization of collective action. Bjørn worked for 10 years in the consulting and research firm ECON, primarily with foresight methods and further development of these, work he continued for a while at the Center for Climate Strategy at Norwegian School of Management.

A fluent Russian speaker,  he has done many projects on Russia, primarily the North, and has travelled extensively in Russia and neighbouring states, acknowledging how future developments there are crucial for world peace and sustainability in years to come.  Bjørn is active in the Norwegian Greens and hopes to help the party introduce more holistic and long term policy in Norway, now as they have finally entered Parliament.

China in 2052 will not be a nation-state in a traditional sense. It will be a civilization-state, representing a modern incarnation of the Chinese dynasties that considered themselves the center of civilization in a world of barbarians. China in 2052 will be a country and a globalised ethnic identity with a strong sense of a glorious past, which after a 150-year project of tumultuous modernization from 1911 to 2052 again will be economically strong and sufficiently mature to act on the basis of its own history and instincts.

This huge nation will have a unique sense of exclusiveness and internal integration. Unlike the other main civilizations in the digitalised and globalized world of 2052, China will not be, for the most part, multicultural. The vast majority of people in China are Han Chinese—an ancestral lineage you are born into and cannot become.

In 2052, China will be a self-contained civilization linked to the geography of historic China and with no need to conquer new lands in the traditional sense. Efficient population-control policies on the mainland combined with steady emigration to both resource-rich and technologically advanced countries will ensure that the population in mainland China is falling, while the overall Chinese population globally will keep growing slowly. Mainland China will have a smaller population size (1.2 billion) than in 2012.

Another two hundred million Chinese will live outside of China, though their primary cultural identity will be Chinese. They will be found across the globe, driven by a strong tradition for investing in high-quality education and to engage in international trade at all levels. The Chinese thus will have access to, and be integrated in, all other main civilizations. Representatives of other civilizations will to a lesser extent have access to the Chinese civilization but by definition will never be able to become fully part of it—unless they are born of Han Chinese emigrants.

The Chinese economy will by far be the biggest national economy in the world, even if on a per capita basis it will still have some catching up to do. Owing to its size, China will dominate a large part of the global economy and will project economic and technological hard power as well as cultural soft power all over the planet.

We are not able to foresee what kind of political system China will have in 2052, but we are sure that the Chinese government in 2052 will be drawing actively on the long Chinese tradition for centralized government and meritocracy (Confucianism). This will have proven to be highly effective when addressing the main challenge of the twenty-first century: the inability of the resource-intensive and polluting modes of production, which currently dominate, to provide long-term welfare to the global population.

Driving the New Techno-Economic Paradigm

In 2052, low-carbon, ultra-resource-efficient solutions will have largely replaced the current inefficient use of fossil fuels in all sectors. Such solutions will have gained a dominant position in the global economy, akin to the position of the petroleum sector in the twentieth century.

China will early on become a main force in the transition away from the fossil-based era—intrinsically motivated by its own development needs, a comparatively weak national resource base, and a keen eye for strategic positioning.

Building on years of ambitious top-down policies and large-scale investment, China will actively seek control of key “commanding heights” of resources and technology for the new techno-economic paradigm and will provide the bulk of the necessary market volume for scaling up and commercializing core technologies such as those that drive solar and wind energy or high-speed electrical mass transit.

Early on, Chinese companies will forge strong partnerships with technologically advanced Japanese and South Korean/Korean companies, while actively leveraging research and development carried out by overseas Chinese (especially on the initially technologically superior North American West Coast). A core strategic asset for China in the new techno-economic paradigm will be its early dominance in reserves and production of rare earth metals that are so vitally important in the production of new-paradigm mainstays like batteries, electric motors, and smartphones. China will gradually leave it to less developed countries to produce cheap, low-end goods for the global market. Instead China will sustain strong growth by increasing consumption internally and increasing its share of the global production of high-tech goods (especially, but not exclusively, related to smart, low-carbon, ultra-efficient solutions).

The attractiveness of the large internal Chinese market will ensure that production outside China increasingly will take into account the preferences of the Chinese customer and the product standards imposed by the Chinese government. In 2052, most countries will significantly depend on Chinese/east Asian technology and solutions for their energy systems, something that will be considered a potential security issue by many politicians in these dependent nations.

The Chinese worldview contains an implicit hierarchical understanding of the world. For more than a thousand years, the relationship between China and other nations was one of a tributary state system with China in the center, and not a system where China engaged with other nations on an equal basis. In 2052, a large number of countries across the globe will have economies that are China-centered, as China will be their main trading partner. This will especially be the case for resource-rich and strategically located countries. China’s relationship to these countries will be akin to the historical tributary-state system.

Countries with China-centered economies will be expected to align their foreign policy with China and respect their position in an economic ecosystem revolving around China. In the geographically defined inner circle we will find neighboring countries. The next sphere of influence will be countries that don’t necessarily border on China but are closely integrated economically as they help China compensate for its comparatively weak natural-resource base through exports of commodities. This sphere will constitute the wider circle of “partner countries.”

China will use a wide range of political and economic tools, including multiple forms of bilateral cooperation (such as cultural exchanges, grant programs, research programs, preferential trade agreements, overseas development aid), to maximize the integration of these countries and economies into a Sino-centric world order. In the various financial crises of the 2010s, China will use its unique financial surplus to refinance the massive public debt of many countries at better-than-market terms and with political strings attached. China will also make enormous investments overseas in public land and infrastructure that will be put up for sale at cutthroat prices in some countries—thus taking a swift giant leap in global power.

Coping with Climate Change

In 2052 China will be struggling with the effects of global warming. The average warming in China has been above the global average since the 1950s, and by 2052 severe droughts will be a permanent fixture in northern China. Increasingly frequent and intense rains will cause severe floods and erosion in the south. The production of staple crops will have shrunk, but China will not be dependent on food imports, because of its declining mainland population. Water supplies for the forty-five million people of the twin northern cities Beijing and Tianjin will come from huge water-transfer schemes from the Yangtze River basin as well as massive water desalinisation projects on the coast. In Shanghai, dikes will be continuously strengthened in order to keep rising seawater levels at bay. The Chinese government will be working on plans for gradual relocation of the population in all “nonsustainable cities.”

Even though China already now regularly experiences climate related extreme weather events affecting millions of Chinese, by 2052 China will have proved (in spite of a few badly managed events) to be one of the most effective and structured countries in tackling effects of climate change in a systematic manner. China will have proved able

to avoid large-scale instability and mobilize resources constructively and effectively toward adaptation. As a consequence, China in 2052 will be dominating the booming global market for climate adaptation engineering and planning competence. China will also actively provide bilateral climate adaptation aid to its “partner countries,” but also to developing countries with weak governance structures.

In 2052, China will be strongly influencing the world in a distinct manner culturally, economically, and politically. Although China will not be alone, the Chinese civilization will remain particularly distinct and strongly driven by its own internal and historically founded sense of identity and logic.