China: The Year Ahead

A ChinaFile Conversation

As 2019 drew to a close, ChinaFile asked contributors to write about their expectations for China in 2020. —The Editors


“Backlash” is the word for China in 2020.

Engagement, progress, friendship, admiration, prosperity—the arc of change for China has moved, with the horrific exception of Tiananmen and its aftermath, in a steady, consistent, and predictable direction. Until now.

With head-spinning velocity, the global mood towards Beijing has turned to fear, suspicion, anger, horror, and distrust.

Some of that is based on new, stunning issues, like the mass incarcerations and human rights abuses based on ethnicity and religion in Xinjiang. Much of the backlash comes from decades of Western frustrations that regulatory difficulties, piracy, and unequal and unfair playing fields have repeatedly thwarted dreams of trading and investment riches. And much is emotional: lawmakers frightened by China’s rise, pundits heartbroken that China didn’t evolve into their desired state, and viewers startled by violent protests and riots in Hong Kong, an East-meets-West place they thought they knew well.

Whatever the reasons, many governments around the world are taking new, harsher views of Beijing and Chinese companies. Beijing isn’t used to this. Many Western companies are re-evaluating their investments in and commitments to China—and in many cases, opting for a change. Low-cost manufacturing can be done elsewhere; lower-risk investing too. China’s huge domestic market and many tempting advantages remain, but the downsides seem to loom larger today than in the past couple of decades. Beijing’s plans didn’t include this.

China’s soft power attempts to build a better image have rebounded on it in stunning ways, because of tone-deafly harsh diplomatic responses, cruel tit-for-tat arrests, and harassment of citizens of the ever-growing number of countries not currently on the friend list.

The backlash has begun. It’s swift. It’s comprehensive. And it will have a host of increasingly important and serious implications for China’s economy, stability, and global engagement, and for the world economy, as supply chains and strategic plans are rethought and reworked.

Most importantly, this backlash has implications for world peace, as conflict areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea take on a heavy and unpredictable emotional component in addition to the pragmatic, rational considerations of the past.

There are several stories which dominate the American public conversation over China: that the regime grows more authoritarian at home while pushing its successful model globally; that cracks are growing in China’s path to superpower status, such as elite disenchantment with Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping and his New Era, protests in Hong Kong, swine fever, and growing debt; that China is beating the United States in their high-tech battle; and that the two countries are destined for rivalry. These narratives are inconsistent with each other, but they are all deeply negative.

They also differ greatly from the dominant story emanating from Zhongnanhai, which highlights China’s domestic successes and its well-intentioned efforts to create a “community of common destiny.” Nor do they jibe with the celebrations occurring in the White House around the Phase One trade deal. The Trump administration hails the agreement as an unprecedented success in promoting American exports and protecting American intellectual property and technology. It also claims that negotiations on a deeper Phase Two deal will commence soon. Perhaps 2020 will see unexpected tranquility under heaven.

Call me a skeptic. I expect the big story of 2020 to be the continued deterioration of U.S.-China relations. Not because a Thucydides Trap preordains it, nor because knuckle-draggers in dark corners of the two governments who benefit from greater hostility prefer it, nor because ideological enmity, hindering cooperation between a communist China and capitalist America when both are strong, precludes it.

Instead, the deeply nationalistic turn in both countries’ leaderships means both governments now see interdependence as a source of vulnerability rather than strength. And now, in both countries, there is less political space to advocate seeing the world in less Hobbesian, more positive-sum terms.

This transformation first occurred in Beijing in the mid-2000’s, and accelerated after Xi took power in 2012. The U.S.’s transition occurred when Trump took office in 2017. Since then, to the surprise of most, the entire spectrum of America’s China policy debate has shifted dramatically. The earlier consensus around a strategy of patient integration complemented by deterrence on key regional hotspots has given way to a debate over the tactics around sustained strategic competition. China, in turn, appears to have decided that its only proper course of action is to double down on its more hostile approach.

In 1992, the scholar Harry Harding published the well tilted book A Fragile Relationship: The United States and China since 1972. In hindsight, it is ironic how enduring the relationship had been over the last two decades, even after the original foundation for strong ties (our common enmity of the Soviet Union) evaporated. But with the relationship in free fall, that four-decade placid era has ended. Hence, unless the Phase One deal results in a surprising wave of benefits and genuine goodwill, 2020 will witness a string of actions and counteractions by both sides that leads the relationship to continue to deteriorate across all fronts.

What will be the top China story in 2020? The Chinese government gives human rights activists plenty of topics to choose from, like the mass arbitrary detention of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, the ever-expanding surveillance state, efforts to undermine key international human rights mechanisms, and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. But let’s bet that the efforts to push back against Chinese government repression grab the headlines. Inside China, despite pervasive controls of online speech, people recently lambasted the tech giant Huawei for the arrest and detention of a former employee, after he pushed the company for severance pay. Netizens reacted cynically to an open letter from Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, in which she lamented the realities of her detention—in her Vancouver mansion—contrasting her treatment with that of the employee.

For the first time, officials leaked high-level government documents detailing repression in Xinjiang. While confirming abusive policies, the documents also showed some local officials resisted arbitrarily detaining Muslims.

Chinese authorities’ heavy-handed efforts to restrict speech internationally, concerns about abuses against foreigners domestically, and increasingly aggressive diplomacy are prompting concern from new constituencies globally. Sports fans tasted Beijing’s ire, and its consequences, after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted sympathetically about the Hong Kong protests. And after Arsenal football star Mesut Ozil decried China’s treatment of Muslims, fans across China burned the U.K. team’s jersey. It’s unclear what longer-term effects these reactions to peaceful speech will have, but as the 2022 Beijing Olympics and other major sports events approach, athletes and fans may view the Chinese government in a far less positive light than they did during the 2008 Games.

Particularly in contrast to Canada’s treatment of Meng, China’s detention of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor has considerably damaged Beijing’s reputation in that country. Meanwhile, Australians are more aware of China’s lack of fair trial amidst China’s detention of an Australian, Yang Hengjun; Americans by the ongoing exit bans against U.S. citizens who haven’t been accused of crimes; and Swedes by the detention of the publisher Gui Minhai.

Some Chinese diplomats’ increasingly undiplomatic conduct has been an unpleasant surprise. Beijing has a new propaganda strategy: letting diplomats vent publicly, sometimes on platforms blocked in China. The Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian lodged racist broadsides at the U.S. on Twitter, while China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, threatened governments which publicly discuss human rights issues in China. Efforts by pro-Beijing voices to shut down pro-Hong Kong democracy protests on campuses in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and U.S. have also changed perceptions about China.

The result? Growing international skepticism about President Xi Jinping’s intentions in the world. Fewer governments are willing to support Beijing’s whitewash of abuses in Xinjiang. More worry about the debt risks of Belt and Road Initiative investments. And people who previously had no particularly strong opinions about the country are taken aback to find Chinese government attacks on free expression going global.

We’ll see what 2020 brings.

[Excerpt, History of China (2039)]

In retrospect, the biggest China-related story of 2020 was the national census, launched on November 1.

Comprehensive census data that trickled out during spring 2021 revealed the extent of the new demographic reality: Birth rates had plunged more than expected. The 2016 relaxation of population controls in favor of a two-child policy had had but a limited effect. The dramatic decline in births from 2017 (17.23 million) to 2018 (15.23 million)—a 10% fall in a single year—turned out not to be an aberrant data outlier, but instead a leading indicator of China’s decline from merely low fertility to super-low fertility, following precisely the same pattern as the rest of East Asia.

The 2020 data plunged China into a situation resembling Japan in the early 1990s and Taiwan and South Korea in the early 2000s. As PowerPoint slides flickered in darkened government conference rooms across the country, officials were steadily forced to accept the scale of the challenge facing them. Gone were the optimistic projections showing official fertility rates somehow rebounding back to Northern European levels over the coming decades, thereby allowing China to experience a somewhat slower and steadier aging process. In their place, jagged red lines revealed an exceptionally rapid deterioration in labor markets, pension stability, and elderly support ratios over the coming decades.

By the early 2020s, such concerns had produced a range of proposals circulating within Beijing’s corridors of power. Quietly, some began to tentatively advocate comprehensive reforms to address pressing long-term problems. Examples included: curbs on military spending, decisive implementation of long-delayed plans to raise official retirement ages from 60 (for men) and 55 (for white-collar female workers), and experimentation with immigration reforms (such as those adopted by other East Asian nations) to facilitate the inflow of low-wage foreign labor to supplement China’s own aging population of domestic migrant workers, in fields from construction to eldercare.

Such proposals all encountered strong opposition from those in the Party elite concerned with latent risks for social unrest, particularly given China’s continued economic slowing. Amid the ensuing rancor, a handful of scholars surged to prominence. Clothing themselves in new Party rhetoric regarding Confucianism and “traditional culture” (传统文化, chuantong wenhua), they sought to sell top officials on a sweeping (and ill-conceived) pro-natal policy, involving aggressive state intervention in the private lives of China’s citizens. Nominally, this drew on an eclectic mélange of foreign models, including Singaporean efforts pursued (with little effect) since the 1980s to raise birth rates. But the core bureaucratic reforms contemplated amounted to a near-inversion of China’s own controversial late 20th century population policies, with one-Party political controls now deployed to aggressively promote marriage and childbirth. Rather than a permissible maximum, China’s two-child policy was to become an expected minimum.

Of course, the dramatic policy decision taken by top leaders at the 2024 Party plenum, and its lasting effects, are well known to Chinese historians and feminist scholars alike. . .

China’s efforts to strengthen its economic and technological footprint across Europe may not garner as much coverage as its attempts to reduce its dependence on U.S. technology, or its mass internment of Uighurs. However, those efforts could strongly influence the course of U.S.-China relations.

U.S. alliances and partnerships across the Atlantic and in the Indo-Pacific anchor the postwar order—a system that has long underpinned U.S. preeminence. China assesses that it will be better positioned to compete with the United States if it can weaken those relationships through a combination of economic attraction and coercion. While that undertaking is more readily observable in the Indo-Pacific, it is increasingly apparent in Europe as well.

Washington has conveyed to Brussels its concerns about China’s strategic ambitions, threats to human rights, and industrial inroads, and its case may be gaining traction. Last February, citing the need to cultivate European champions that can compete more effectively with U.S. and Chinese multinationals, France and Germany published a joint manifesto that called for overhauling the European Union’s (EU’s) regulatory framework. The following month, for the first time, the European Commission labeled China a “systemic rival.” And this past October, the EU issued a report warning that “hostile third countries may exercise pressure on 5G suppliers in order to facilitate cyberattacks serving their national interests.”

However, while European countries are increasingly concerned by China’s economic advances, they are neither on board with the Trump administration’s decision to blacklist Huawei nor prepared to break with China openly. Instead, they are focused on the threats of terrorism and Russian revanchism, as well as the challenges of climate change and financial rebalancing.

The Trump administration’s “America First” orientation would have stressed transatlantic ties even if the United States had not aggressively contested China’s resurgence. And an economically growing and increasingly innovative China would have reinforced European concerns about U.S. decline even if the occupants of the White House had been avowed supporters of the transatlantic relationship. The confluence of these two phenomena, though, is especially potent.

Besides facilitating Huawei’s forays throughout Europe, tensions between Washington and Brussels may be helping China find a more receptive audience for its Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Italy became the first G7 country to endorse the undertaking last March, and the following month Greece joined the “17+1 grouping,” a major initiative aimed at enhancing ties between China and countries in Central and Eastern Europe that many observers consider adjunct to the BRI. The more of a foothold China gains across Europe, the more it will be able to challenge political sovereignty and intellectual freedom there, as it has in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Sweden.

One of the central challenges for the United States and Europe will be to forge a more united approach to China’s resurgence, lest its growing ambitions and influence erode the foundations of the European and transatlantic projects.