Cheng LI

What will China’s sociopolitical structure and leadership be like in the year 2020? The three most commonly perceived political scenarios range from the emergence of a democratic China; prolonged instability and an evolving social scene; or a resilient, authoritarian regime.

Progressing toward the year 2020, analysts see three possible political scenarios for China in 2020: a nation that will become a stable constitutional democracy; a country that will collapse and be left in a state of prolonged civil war, domestic chaos, and massive human exodus; and, with its combination of a market economy and authoritarian political system, a China that will be very like what it is today but far more institutionalized. But China’s political structure is unlikely to develop along a direct, linear trajectory. Which road China ultimately takes will depend on the interplay of current political trends, key players in decision-making roles, and demographic factors.

Democratic China

Changes in society and the political system have the potential to contribute to a Chinese democracy. In the social domain, by 2030 some 300–400 million people are expected to have moved from the countryside to urban areas. The urbanization rate of the country is projected to increase from 39 percent in 2002 to 60 percent by 2020. This resettlement, which will probably represent the largest urbanization drive in human history, will likely be accompanied by an unprecedented rapid rise of the Chinese middle class, projected to be 520 million people by 2025. According to the Chinese government’s current strategic plans, by 2020 China is slated to become a well-off society (xiaokang shehui ????). Projections point to per capita income as high as 67,150 yuan ($9,800) in 2020, depending on economic conditions. (China’s per capita income in 2008 was estimated at 41,797 yuan, or $6,100.)

The ongoing technology revolution is changing the way in which information and ideas are disseminated. Experts believe that 1 billion Chinese people—approximately 70 percent of the country’s population—will be using cell phones by 2020. This number will exceed that of the United States, Europe, and Japan combined. With such unprecedented telecommunication penetration paired with continued technological innovation, no government can effectively control the flow of information. Such a flow of information could lead to independent media that in all likelihood will lead to greater cultural and political pluralism in the country.

Other societal changes include the rise of civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations, which are no longer banned in China; an increase in law school students; and an increase in registered lawyers. Many lawyers and legal professionals devote their careers to protecting the interests of vulnerable social groups. A new Chinese name, lawyers for human rights protection (weiquan lüshi ????), has been recently created to describe this emerging group. It is reasonable to expect that lawyers will become an even more important political force by 2020. Some will continue to work outside the political establishment to challenge abuses of power while other activist lawyers may become political leaders.

In the political arena in 2020, the so-called fifth-generation leaders—those who were born in the 1950s and early 1960s—will likely rise to the highest levels of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership will become increasingly diversified in terms of professional background and political experience. Entrepreneurs will constitute an important part of the governing elite in 2020 as China’s market economy takes hold.

Foreign-educated returnees (haiguipai ???) will also compete for high offices. Since the year 2000, about 120,000 Chinese students have gone to study abroad every year. The annual number is expected to increase to 300,000 by 2020. These foreign-trained returnees will contribute to the international diffusion of norms and the spread of democratic ideas in China.

The most important political change occurring in China is a trend toward checks and balances in the leadership. Chinese political leaders are not a monolithic group with the same values, outlooks, and policy preferences. And the ruling party is no longer led by a strongman, like Mao or Deng, but instead consists of two competing elite groups: a so-called populist coalition and a so-called elitist coalition. Chinese leaders have begun using the term inner-party democracy (dangnei minzhu ????) to describe the idea of checks and balances within its leadership. This had led to a kind of bipartisanship in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or what could be called a one party–two factions formula.

The elitist group represents the interest of the coastal region and prioritizes economic growth. The populist group often voices the concerns of the inland regions and advocates social justice and social cohesion. These two groups are almost equally powerful, partly because their expertise and leadership skills complement each other. Though competing on certain issues, these groups are willing to cooperate on others. They share goals for the survival of the CCP at home and for China’s rise abroad. This need to cooperate occasionally also makes bipartisanship, with Chinese characteristics, a sustainable proposition for the near future.

This political mechanism, however, will not remain stagnant. It will inevitably make political lobbying more transparent, factional politics more legitimate, and elections more regular and genuine. If so, it is not difficult to imagine that the CCP will split along the lines of an elitist coalition and a populist coalition after about fifteen more years of this inner-party bipartisanship. In 2020 the elections and competition within the CCP may extend to general elections in the country; consequently, the intraparty democracy may well be transformed into a constitutional democracy.

Chaotic China

One of the gravest concerns regarding China’s quest for political democracy is that the transition may be painful and violent and could result in prolonged chaos. The status of prolonged chaos has more to do with the daunting demographic challenges that China will confront in the years to come than with political differences.

Economic disparity has become one of the greatest problems the country faces. Within a generation China has been transformed from one of the most equitable countries in the world, in terms of income distribution, to one of the least equitable. In addition, rampant official corruption, growing rural discontent, environmental degradation, a major health crisis, the absence of a social safety net, and frequent industrial accidents could contribute to social unrest.

The ongoing large-scale urbanization in China is not only creating an urban middle class but also increasing the number of urban poor and unemployed people. Population pressures will be overwhelming as the country’s working-age population reaches 955 million by 2020, compared with 732 million in 1995. China’s economic development cannot generate enough jobs to absorb so many people.

The middle-class lifestyle in the urban areas is likely to make China’s environmental challenges more acute. More money means more cars. More cars will naturally lead to more air pollution. The number of registered motor vehicles in Beijing, for example, was 2.7 million in 2006, and a thousand new cars hit the streets each day.

Nationwide, approximately 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and 400 million people live in areas with dangerously high levels
of air pollution. One-third of China’s land has been polluted by acid rain. Some scholars in environmental studies believe that China may need to deal with 20–30 million environmental refugees every year by 2020.

China’s medical and health-service system is woefully inadequate for all but the affluent. Approximately 45 percent of urban residents and 80 percent of the rural population have no medical insurance. Furthermore, China is rapidly becoming an aging society. One study found that the elderly (defined as those over the age of 60) comprise roughly 12 percent of China’s total population, but by 2020 this number is projected to increase to roughly 17 percent, about 243 million people.

There are, of course, other triggering factors, including grand-scale corruption scandals, tensions between the central and local governments, conflicting interests between civilian and military leadership, a global financial crisis that may hit the Chinese middle class particularly hard, ethnic frictions in Xinjiang and Tibet, Chinese xenophobia against foreign companies, military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait or with Japan, and a possible nuclear disaster on the Korean Peninsula. Each of these factors could undermine the stability of the Chinese regime.

Around 2022 the fifth generation of Chinese leaders will likely pass power to the so-called sixth generation of leaders who are mainly from single-child families. The sixth-generation leaders, though cosmopolitan and well educated, are characteristically incapable of dealing with crises. Consequently, a series of snowballing events could take place in 2020: The central government loses its control over provincial administrations, the CCP no longer functions, the military splits, civil war breaks out, hoodlums cause looting all over the country, and a massive Chinese exodus leads migrants to every corner of the world.

Adaptable China

China’s authoritarian system is not stagnant, however; its resiliency and ability to adjust to new environments and to introduce legal, administrative, social, and political reforms make the system sustainable.

Recently proposed new developmental strategies may contribute to the continued growth of the Chinese economy in the 2010s and beyond. These strategies include more balanced regional development, domestic demand-driven growth, technological research and innovation (especially in the areas of biotechnology and nanotechnology), and the overseas expansion of Chinese firms. A more sustainable economic development—and a more equal distribution of resources and wealth in the country—will give the CCP more political capital and thus more legitimacy for its rule.

Meanwhile, the various problems in democratic countries—such as increases in economic disparity, voting corruption, political nepotism, election flaws, inefficiency—will make democracy less appealing to the Chinese people. In the eyes of many, an authoritarian, stable, prosperous China can be a credible political alternative to Western models of democracy.

Some major events—most noticeably the 2008 Olympic Games that were held in Beijing, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the possible 2018 FIFA World Cup in China, and the 2020 landing of China’s lunar rover (or even astronauts) on the moon—will further magnify the governing capacity of the ruling party. These developments and hypotheses suggest that by 2020 China will neither have made the transition to democracy nor have become chaotic. Instead, China will remain under the authoritarian rule of a ninety-nine-year-old Chinese Communist Party.

Enigmatic China

Although one political scenario can lead to another, China’s political trajectory will by no means develop along a straight path. The country can embark on one direction without necessarily experiencing another. Despite enormous differences in the three contrasting scenarios—democratization, disintegration, and adaptation—all three of these futures share some factors and trends. Examples include the strong impact of the information and technology revolutions, China’s demographic challenges, cultural and social pluralism, and the continued growth of nationalistic sentiment.

What China’s domestic political landscape will look like in the year 2020 will largely depend on the interplay of current political trends, the new players who have recently emerged, and the demographic factors that will be important in the future. Yet, like any other country, China’s future can have multiple possibilities. China analysts may not agree on what China’s most likely 2020 scenario will be, but any thoughtful and intelligent forecast about China will perhaps come to the same conclusion: The trajectory of this fast-growing economic powerhouse will have profound implications not only for the millions of Chinese people but also for the world community.

The Peasantry as a Source of Revolutionary Leadership

Mao’s decisive move, both for the success of Chinese Communism and for his own leadership, was his rejection of important criteria of Marxist orthodoxy and his turning to the peasants as the motive force for revolution. The idea was hardly original with him; other Chinese politicians, Communist and non-Communist, had been “going to the country” for millennia. And, after all, Marx was the product of an essentially urban culture; China was essentially rural… In working up his report on the Hunan peasants, and in other studies, he investigated cross-sections of groups of ordinary Chinese to ascertain their material conditions, opinions, and preferences for alternative courses of action. He was always concerned about “concrete problems”—food, land, tenantry, suppression of women—and their implications for individual character and political action. It had long been recognized that the peasantry would supply supporting forces for revolutionary action; Mao saw it also as a source of revolutionary leadership. If one of the supreme qualities of the gifted political leader is to understand not only the needs of potential followers but the way in which those needs could be activated and channeled, Mao’s experience, perception and analysis gave him an unparalleled opportunity to mobilize and lead.

Source: Burns, J. M.. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 288.

Further Reading

Jackson R., & Howe, N. (2004, April). The graying of the Middle Kingdom: The demographics and economics of retirement policy in China. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

Li, Cheng. (2006, Fall). China’s telecom industry on the move: Domestic competition, global ambition, and leadership transition. China Leadership Monitor, 19.

Li, Cheng. (2007). China in the year 2020: Three political scenarios. Asia Policy 4, 17–29. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

Li, Cheng. (2008). Ethnic minority elites in China’s party-state leadership: An empirical assessment. China Leadership Monitor, 25.

Nathan, A. (2003, January). Authoritarian resilience. Journal of Democracy, (14)1, 6–17.

Xinhua News Agency.
(2001, May 21). China’s urbanization rate to grow to 60 percent in 20 years. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

Zakaria, F. (2003). The future of freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Source: Li, Cheng (2009). Leadership—Future Scenarios. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1282–1285. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Leadership—Future Scenarios (L?ngd?olì qiánzh?n ?????)|L?ngd?olì qiánzh?n ????? (Leadership—Future Scenarios)

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