To celebrate its May Release, the Stanford China Program hosted a virtual book launch event for Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China’s Future (Stanford University Press) on June 2nd. Joining co-authors Thomas Fingar (Shorenstein APARC Fellow, Stanford University) and Jean C. Oi (Director, Stanford China Program; William Haas Professor of Chinese Politics, Stanford University) were contributors Karen Eggleston (Senior Fellow at FSI; Director of the Asia Health Policy Program, Shorenstein APARC, Stanford University), Barry Naughton (Sokwanlok Chair of Chinese International Affairs, School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego), and Andrew Walder (Senior Fellow at FSI; Denise O'Leary and Kent Thiry Professor, Stanford University). As Fingar and Oi point out in their volume, despite China’s extraordinary growth over the past 40 years, the country’s future is uncertain. China has enjoyed optimal conditions for development since the 1980s, but new hurdles including an aging populace, the loss of comparative economic advantage, a politically entrenched elite, and a population with rising expectations will test the country’s leaders. With each focusing on a different facet of China’s challenges, the panelists gathered to share their expertise and provide the audience with a glimpse into what the future might hold for this important country.
Following an introduction from Professor Jean Oi, the program kicked off with Professor Barry Naughton of University of California, San Diego, who discussed his chapter entitled “Grand Steerage.” Professor Naughton argued that, as it plans for the future, China’s policymaking is becoming increasingly technology-focused, particularly in the realm of economic policy. Naughton further notes that China’s economy is becoming simultaneously more state-guided and more centered around technology. This decision is a gamble, though: China is investing heavily in high-tech industries, advancing massive, centrally steered projects like the Greater Bay Area initiative and the Xiong’an New District. If they are successful, says Naughton, this will indeed be an incredible success. But, if they are not, China’s losses will be major: “There’s not really a middle ground.”
After Professor Naughton was Professor Karen Eggleston, an expert on health policy in Asia. Professor Eggleston’s chapter, “Demographic and Healthcare Challenges,” deals with emerging obstacles for China’s healthcare system, including population aging and the problems that come with it, like chronic diseases and elder care. Although China’s healthcare system has improved dramatically in recent decades, it has done so unevenly, notes Eggleston: life expectancy has greatly increased, but with disparities according to income, region, and urban vs. rural status; universal healthcare is available, but the benefit level is low, effectively limiting the standard of care many can receive. The ratio of health spending to GDP is also increasing, yet it is still modest compared to high-income countries. The COVID-19 crisis has, of course, introduced even more challenges: Will China be able to distribute future vaccines equitably? Will this crisis negatively affect young people’s decisions to choose healthcare as a career? Will telemedicine, which has seen a surge under the pandemic, improve or exacerbate existing disparities? China faces a multitude of constraints and choices going forward if it hopes to meet its population’s healthcare needs.
The audience then had a chance to hear from co-editor Thomas Fingar, speaking on his chapter, “Sources and Shapers of China’s Foreign Policy.” Fingar noted three key takeaways from both his chapter and his talk: Firstly, China’s foreign policy is a fundamental part of its national policy. Secondly, the global political environment plays an important role in shaping both foreign and domestic policy which, thirdly, plays an important role in shaping foreign policy. The conditions that allowed China to flourish over the past 40 years, emphasized Fingar, are very different from those of the present. In the 1970s and 80s, China was able to take advantage of Cold War bipolarity, globalization was in its infancy, and “China was the only significant developing country willing to embark, at that time, on the export-led path of development.” In recent years, though, China’s behavior internationally has alienated other countries; there are many competitors pursuing its style of development; and its needs and aspirations have changed, requiring more raw materials and depending upon multi-national economic agreements. Fingar suggests two potential foreign policy options: China could continue with its wolf warrior diplomacy, which has “alienated essentially all China’s neighbors to some degree,” or it could return to a style more similar to that of the 1980s and 90s Reform and Opening era. It remains to be seen which style will win out.
Finally, Professor Andrew Walder concluded the program with his discussion of China’s political future at large. His chapter, “China’s National Trajectory,” follows China’s remarkable advancement in recent years and “tr[ies] to divine what a lower growth era will mean for China’s political future.” The last 40 years of rapid growth have generated support for China’s political system, more patriotism, the near eradication of democracy movements, and an elite unity not seen in the 1970s and 80s. However, low growth rates could mean a reversal for many of these trends, says Walder. While the aforementioned support for and stability of the Chinese government was maintained by ever-improving living standards and upward mobility, a low growth period (coupled with an aging population) means the government will no longer be able to rely on these trends for popular support. Rather, it will need to improve its provision of public services to address present-day challenges. Regardless, argues Walder, the low growth era will undoubtedly lead to “dynamic changes underneath the façade of stability of Chinese politics….”