China is seeking to define the future. At home, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, intends to instil ‘socialist values’ that underpin an ever-expanding ‘China dream’. Overseas, its nexus of economic, political and military influence is framed by the idea of a ‘community of common destiny’. The past 40 years, since the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, have been marked by astonishing economic growth, a greater global role and strongly authoritarian politics at home.

This year, the CCP marks 70 years since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Plans are already afoot for the centenary of the party’s founding in 2021. But how realistic is it to assume that China will maintain its momentum over the next three decades until the People’s Republic marks its centenary?

The answer is that this is possible, but only if China changes. In the next phase of its development, China will need to embrace economic and social openness in a way that it is still reluctant to do. This may happen in a counterintuitive way. A more open China would not necessarily abandon its one-party system, but it would need to allow significantly more freedom for discussion, economic activity and genuine two-way engagement with the wider world.

How likely is such a change? In the short term, perhaps not that likely. China’s political direction has been changing rapidly since the rise to power of Xi Jinping and it has become clear, as the 2010s have progressed, that Xi not only has no intention of liberalizing China’s politics but is actively steering the country in a different direction.

This trend did not in fact begin in 2012 when Xi became secretary-general. Rather, it was the failure of the West to deal with the global financial crisis in 2008 that began the process of disillusionment with the Washington Consensus on democratic politics and neoliberal economics.

Xi’s rise, however, made it clearer that the Chinese state would be re-invented in the new leader’s image. We have seen a sharp move away from the trend of the early 2000s for state rather than party organizations to dominate Chinese government, with the direction of travel being reversed in the past few years as the party element of the party-state becomes ever more pronounced.

China has never really had a full democracy, but during the years of communist rule the pendulum has swung between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ authoritarianism

For the next five to ten years, it seems unlikely that that trend will alter. China’s public sphere – its media, academia and legal system – has been placed firmly under the control of the party, with the constitution changed so Xi can take a third and possibly fourth term of office. But what will emerge after that period?

To answer this, we need to move beyond the sharp divide we make between authoritarianism and democracy. The likelihood that China will become an electoral democracy in the next few decades is low. But the probability that it will become a less restrictive although still authoritarian state is much higher.

China has never really had a full democracy, but during the years of communist rule the pendulum has swung between what the political scientist David Shambaugh has referred to as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ authoritarianism. Most of Mao’s rule was relatively hard, in its level of top-down control.

The 1980s was an unprecedently ‘soft’ period, although the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings brought this to an end. The run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw a remarkable opening up in areas such as investigative reporting, a trend that has come to an abrupt halt under Xi.

A demographic timebomb

Why, then, would things change? Consider one key date: 2029. This is the year when demographers calculate that China will begin to see the effects of its one-child policy come home to roost. Its population will start to fall by about five million people a year, and it will start to age.

Image: Statista

This is a problem that has been faced by other countries such as Japan and South Korea, which have sought to resolve it either through technology or by allowing more immigration.This is a problem that has been faced by other countries such as Japan and South Korea, which have sought to resolve it either through technology or by allowing more immigration.

Experience has shown that older people don’t like being looked after by robots, so it is possible that China, like Japan, may allow immigration by larger numbers of young people, mostly women, from the Southeast Asian region. If that were to happen the influx of people would change Chinese society. Democracy may not follow, but a necessary engagement with other people and their cultures, points of view, and needs would provide more diversity within Chinese society, and allow new voices to thrive, particularly in the most vibrant part of China, its cities.

The Taiwan issue

Another impetus for political change is the continuing issue of Taiwan. Beijing has always made it clear that it reserves the right to invade and occupy Taiwan, by military means if necessary.

Yet this has always seemed a short-term way to ‘resolve’ the Taiwan question. True, mainland China may have the military capacity to capture the island. But what sort of unification would that offer the 23 million inhabitants of one of Asia’s most lively democracies, a place with free media, world-class education and a range of civil liberties that make it one of the most liberal societies in the region?

China has long sought to wield ‘soft power’, hoping to show that the Chinese path is an attractive, progressive, forward looking one to follow. A violent reunification would destroy any hope of burnishing that image.

Instead, a softening of attitudes that provide different levels of freedom would offer a skilful solution to a perennial problem. By liberalizing at home, making it clear that Hong Kong’s freedoms will be kept intact – and those that have been eroded will be restored – China would be in a far better position to make its case that reunification would be beneficial for all.

China reinvented

Right now, that story is hard to tell. Yet the depressing developments in Hungary, Turkey and Philippines in recent years show that democracy which exists only in a technical sense is no guarantee of liberal freedoms. This could mean that the space for China to reinvent itself as a state that allows genuine freedoms, even under a one-party state, is greater than it was at the height of global democratization in the 1990s.

The newly confrontational response of the United States may also give China a pressing reason to burnish its image in this area in the next decade. Under the Trump administration, it has become clear that containment of China is a top priority. However, the growing sense of confrontation with China is now cross-partisan. Democrats embrace the idea as much as Republicans.

In Asia, there is still unease about Trump’s commitment as an ally, but signs such as US arms sales to Taiwan suggest that creating an anti-Chinese alliance still beats Trumpian instincts to withdraw from the region. Meanwhile, China is trying to find the silver bullet that will win it genuine partners in the region and remove the US from it.

Belt and Road

The answer may lie in China’s strategic framework, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. Despite the hype, rather than this being some masterplan organized from a headquarters in Beijing, much of the initiative has been pushed by internal economic factors, including the need to find somewhere to place misallocated capital, as well as providing opportunities for provincial corporations to compete with each other. There have also been setbacks, including the spat with Malaysia, which earlier this year threatened to pull out of the BRI highspeed rail contract it had signed until it was given a considerable discount.

Yet the future of BRI as a project to spread Chinese influence may lie in a dilemma that will become clearer over the next decade. China can now offer significant funding for infrastructural projects, and has become the most significant trading partner for almost all other Asian states. There is simply no equivalent western source of funding for many of the proposed projects, particularly the more financially problematic ones. Despite this, the US remains the only reliable provider of security in the region.

Some countries, such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, are close to China and becoming closer. But few states yet relish the idea of a significant Chinese military presence in their territories, and it is hard to imagine that those countries that have a US presence would welcome swapping it for a closer alignment with China.

South Koreans will not exchange the US soldiers on their soil for People’s Liberation Army troops. China has its work cut out over the next decade to persuade people that its security presence should be welcomed. Yet without such a presence, large parts of the BRI, which goes into hostile territory in parts of South and Central Asia, will remain vulnerable.

Another factor, perhaps the single most important game-changer in China’s ability to spread its influence today, is technology.

Britain is currently consumed by arguments about whether Huawei should be allowed to install its 5G broadband network. The debate rather misses the point, however. China’s technological capabilities now make it a likely provider of technological infrastructure for large parts of the non-western world which need efficient, cheap capacity.

China can draw on experiments at home such as the social credit system, which is using a combination of big data, artificial intelligence and face recognition to create a system that allows close surveillance of the population.

There is potential now for China to create a cross-continental technological ecology, linked to the BRI, that could give it a major foothold in Southeast Asia, East Africa and Latin America.

What are the chances of China managing to turn the next three decades into a narrative as powerful as its story since 1978, which contains both a rise to economic superpower status and a continuing control over individual freedoms?

Major obstacles

On its current path, China will run up against major obstacles. The drive towards globalizing China is becoming harder to reconcile with a domestic regime that is closing down the space for discussion. The technological revolution can help embed a Chinese economic presence, but it is unlikely on its own to create widespread admiration of Chinese values or what they bring to other societies.

The Chinese Communist Party has had some of its greatest successes in the past half-century when it proved open to major change: the shift from a command economy to market socialism, or the move from the totalitarianism that Mao espoused at the height of his regime to the relatively open periods of the 1980s and the early 2000s.

Could the development of a more liberal state, with one-party rule, but a genuinely free public sphere, be the next stage?

No other state in history has managed such a trick. But then no other state has posted ten per cent a year growth for the best part of a decade. In the end, it won’t be America’s decision as to whether China can dominate the next three decades. It will be China’s.

How the one-party state may shape our future, Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford and Director of the University China Centre