China 2069: Triumph or Travesty?

A look at the dueling paths of the world’s next great superpower

Andrew Leonard
Jan 31 · 13 min read
Credit: Jackal Pan/Getty Images

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In the science fiction short story “Folding Beijing,” author Hao Jingfang conjures a future in which China’s capital is a miracle of postmodern origami engineering. The city is its own mighty Transformer robot, endlessly reconfiguring itself in an alternating cycle between the luxury accommodations of the one percent and slums inhabited by the poor, waste-picking masses.

Computer scientist Kaifu Lee cites “Folding Beijing” as an example of how advances in artificial intelligence will almost certainly exacerbate income inequality. In his 2018 book. AI Superpowers, Lee makes a convincing case that China is poised to lead the world in the commercial deployment of A.I., but he warns that the consequences could easily be catastrophic, potentially leading to “economic divisions that tear at the fabric of our society and challenge our sense of human dignity and purpose.” The Chinese future embodied by “Folding Beijing” and predicted in AI Superpowers is like the Shanghai skyline obscured by toxic smog: simultaneously marvelous and terrifying.

One of the more remarkable things about China in the current moment is that a country with so much past is now the crucible of the future. But it shouldn’t really be a surprise. For most of the past 2,000 years, China has been on the cutting edge of both cultural and technological progress and for long stretches boasted the most prosperous pace-setting economy on the planet. In the long run, the so-called century of humiliation, dating from the Opium Wars to the triumph of the Chinese Communist revolution, may turn out to be nothing more than a speed bump, an interregnum between soaring dynasties. After 40 years of phenomenally fast economic growth, China already boasts the second-largest economy in the world; in 2069, another 50 years from now, it could well reign supreme again.

But what exactly would it mean for China to once again set the world’s agenda? Is China 2069 a future in which technology works for or against humanity? China already is giving the world an avalanche of mixed signals. For every high-speed bullet train and spacecraft landing on the moon, there’s a facial recognition surveillance system backing up concentration camps in Xinjiang and a censored internet site. Chinese industry is simultaneously pushing renewable energy forward while generating astounding amounts of pollution. Are we headed for the engineered social stratification of “Folding Beijing,” or could we hope instead for a society where robots do all the work while humans amuse themselves composing poetry and practicing calligraphy?

The smartest China-watchers in the world hesitate when faced with such questions. When you are at a loss to predict how the current trade war will resolve itself or whether President Xi Jinping’s vigorous authoritarian rule is sustainable, guessing the status quo 50 years from now is pure hubris. Might as well just read some science fiction and call it a day.

If China’s economy continues to grow at anything close to the historical rate of the past 40 years, the global environment will be pushed to the breaking point.

But that’s where it gets interesting, because China’s unique circumstances have given rise to a flourishing explosion of stunning Chinese science fiction. According to science fiction writer Xia Jia, this is partly explained by how events in recent Chinese history have bequeathed “the simultaneous presence of crisis and prosperity” on the Chinese consciousness. There is immense satisfaction, Xia Jia argues, at China’s amazing recent success at lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and achieving technological virtuosity, but there is also surging anxiety at the negative consequences — environmental devastation, skyrocketing inequality — of jumping on the global capitalism bandwagon. Even as Shanghai’s skyscrapers assault the heavens, the sea levels are rising at their base. For Chinese science fiction writers, prosperity and doom are joined at the hip.

This is true, of course, for the entire planet. But China’s size, human resources, growth trajectory, and government’s total commitment to charging into the future combine to make it the world’s most obvious laboratory for finding out whether the contradictions inherent in humanity’s current path will be reconciled—or not. The simple act of imagining China in 2069 requires confronting those contradictions.

Contradiction #1: The Environment

It doesn’t get starker than this: China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. If China’s economy continues to grow at anything close to the historical rate of the past 40 years, the global environment will be pushed to the breaking point.

However, China is also the planet’s largest producer of solar panels and wind turbines. And in striking contrast to the United States, both the political leadership and the general public accept that human-made global warming is real. President Xi Jinping has even declared that China is an inherently “ecological civilization.” President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord gave China a tremendous opportunity to stake out global leadership on climate change. So, one can dream: By 2069, a combination of Confucian responsibility, Taoist harmony, and persistent low-carbon innovation might be the planet’s best chance to keep from overheating.

There does seem to be some evidence that the air in China’s biggest cities has become marginally more breathable in recent years. But nothing is guaranteed. According to Sam Geall, author of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, the true test of China’s commitment to deal with climate change will come when it stops exporting its own polluting industries to other nations and ceases investing in fossil-fuel generation outside of China.

“You can speculate about a world order in which China is seen as a benevolent manager of the infrastructures of the future,” says Geall, citing China’s ambitious plans to built a globe-spanning electricity transmission network that could be “a global grid of renewables,” but to “actually deal with climate change in the time frame necessary,” China will have to take much more aggressive action than it is now.

The increasing sophistication of A.I. will lead to economic productivity gains and, quite likely, massively painful structural transitions.

The environmental consequences of China’s rapid growth are a staple in Chinese science fiction. In Chen Qiufan’s novel The Waste Tide, the entire plot revolves around the toxic necessity of recycling the world’s electronic waste. But when I asked Chen to speculate about the environmental path forward toward 2069, he casually predicted that China would develop a form of fusion power in the decades ahead that would drastically reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. It’s hard to think of a better example of how China’s headlong embrace of the future spawns both optimism and disgust.

Contradiction #2: The Artificially Intelligent Future

Kaifu Lee’s explanation of why China is destined to be an A.I. superpower boils down to a single overarching insight. The efficacy of deployable machine-learning algorithms is dependent on the amount of data available to “train” those algorithms. In 2019, nobody on the planet has more access to data than Chinese technology companies and the Chinese state.

China, Lee writes, is “the Saudi Arabia of data.” The smartphone-wielding masses in China conduct almost every aspect of their lives online. As of August 2018, according to Chinese government statistics, there were 800 million internet users in China (compared to 300 million in the United States), and 98 percent of them connect from mobile devices that are used for literally everything.

The increasing sophistication of A.I. will lead to economic productivity gains, advances in customer convenience, and, quite likely, massively painful structural transitions as vast numbers of jobs are replaced by machines. The point Lee stresses is that we are likely to see this narrative play out first in China. The cashless society has already arrived in China. The propensity with which Chinese smartphone wielders use their devices to order food, shop, find transportation, and consume news and entertainment means that China’s tech giants know far more about the real-world activities of the country’s people than the likes of Google or Facebook or Apple can achieve. Access to all that data, Lee argues, will lock in Chinese A.I. superiority. There are few easier predictions to make than that by 2069, Chinese algorithms will be profoundly influencing the economy and politics of Chinese society.

“China will be the most A.I.-driven country in the world,” Chen Qiufan says. “On every level, the government will use A.I. for surveillance and control all the aspects of manufacturing, consumption, and living status. The people won’t notice at all. It will make China one of the most safe but also depressing countries in the world.”

Contradiction #3: Space

On January 3, China landed the first spacecraft ever on the “dark” side of the moon. An op-ed published shortly thereafter in the Washington Post by Namrata Goswami, a space industry analyst and author of the forthcoming Great Powers and Resource Nationalism in Space, warned that the United States is now positioned to “lose badly” in the race for the future of “space exploitation.”

I asked Goswami what that future might look like in 2069. She sent me a set of bullet points:

  • China’s lunar base is fully functional. There are 50 permanent humans overseeing thousands of worker robots and hundreds of annual lunar tourists.
  • China sends probes from the lunar base to Mars and beyond, as well as the asteroid belt.
  • China has built a ring of solar-powered satellites and has begun selling power to neighboring countries.
  • China has captured an asteroid into lunar orbit for concentrated metal extraction.

In an era when budget cuts and political priorities have constrained the U.S. space program, future-forward dreamers may find something heartening in China’s aggressive reach for the stars. There are few things more essential to classic science fiction visions of the future than humanity’s expansion beyond the confines of one planet. The departure of humanity for outer space is a core element of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, the most successful Chinese science fiction to be translated into English.

China explicitly sees its space program as proof of its emergence as “a major space power” and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” but that rhetoric sounds a warning bell to some Chinese scientists. The moon, wrote physicist Yangyang Cheng, has become “not just a destination of scientific discovery, but also a territory for imperial conquest.” When I emailed Cheng to follow up and ask if she was willing to predict where China’s space program might get to by 2069, she rejected my basic formulation.

“I think it is important to not start a question with ‘future of Chinese space exploration,’” Cheng said. “Associating space exploration or any scientific endeavor with a country by default is a premise that does not lead to positive outcomes.”

As was the case with China’s potential environmental impact, or its deployment of AI, space turns out also to be a domain for ambivalence as well as progress.

Contradiction #4: War

On January 28, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was charging the China telecom company Huawei with stealing state secrets, evading sanctions on Iran, and engaging in intellectual property theft. In the context of preexisting trade-war tensions, the move was a clear escalation of pressure and obvious grist for those who see an inevitable showdown between China and the United States coming in the future. There is no way to look forward to 2069 without wondering if a war between the two leading powers on the planet is part of the narrative. There’s little question that the China–U.S. relationship has gotten chillier. Does that mean a new Cold War is in the offing?

Odd Arne Westad, a Cold War historian and specialist in East Asian foreign relations, cautioned against any quick-and-easy parallels with the Cold War of the 20th century. Back then, he noted, the world was dominated by a binary clash of ideologically opposed and utterly incompatible systems that actively sought the destruction of their opponent. Today’s world is far different. Nearly everyone, even the former Soviet Union, has bought into capitalism. Mutual destruction is not a policy goal, and far more players occupy the world stage. Westad sees more similarity with the late 19th century, when numerous nation-states sought their own advantage in a multipolar world, than with the latter half of the 20th century, when everything was seen through the prism of communism versus capitalism.

But that doesn’t make the current moment any less perilous, warned Westad. The late 19th century was also a period of rapid globalization that gave rise to increasing political conflict and international rivalries, ultimately culminating in the disaster of World War I. Westad sees any number of flash points that could involve China in military confrontation — the disputed border with India, the scramble to secure sovereignty over the South China Sea, the threat of Taiwanese independence, and North Korea.

“It’s a big challenge,” Westad said. “Are we going to down the path of what we saw in the late 19th century, or are we going to make use of some of the new instruments that were developed since the middle part of the late 20th century to facilitate some degree of cooperation that goes beyond what is purely national or purely single-state oriented?”

Contradiction #5: The Economy

Perhaps the biggest contradiction baked into any assumption about China 2069 is the dubious conviction that China’s economy will continue to grow as fast as it has over the past half-century. The days when Chinese GDP growth rates topped 10 percent or higher on an annual basis are long gone and unlikely to return.

“If we can assume Chinese growth to be on its current trajectory, of course this would imply a massive reallocation of economic and political power in favor of the East and at the expense of the West,” said Yasheng Huang, a professor of international management at MIT and author of Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics. “This is the easy answer and scenario, but there is a more nuanced answer, and it is the following: For China to continue to grow at a reasonable rate for a sustained period of time, and to do so with political and social stability, I do not think China can maintain its political system in its current configurations. The political system will have to moderate itself and move toward a less authoritarian arrangement than it is now. It will have to maintain peaceful relations with the West and its neighboring countries.”

In China 2069, will the world be taking its pop-cultural cues from the Middle Kingdom?

But even with a moderation in authoritarianism, there are major obstacles looming in the Chinese growth path. When I asked Li Jun, a Chinese science fiction writer who uses the pen name Baoshu, what he imagined 2069 would be like, his first sentence was jarring:

“In 2069, the total population of China will fall by half, to around 700 to 800 million people.”

The consequences of this dramatic population crash will be enormous, Baoshu predicted. Although China’s transition to a high-tech innovation economy would keep the country among the world’s economic leaders, economic growth would nonetheless slow dramatically, and China would ultimately fail to surpass the United States.

The combination of China’s “one-child policy” between 1979 and 2015 and the normal tendency of birth rates to fall in economically advanced countries has put China in one of the tightest demographic squeezes on the planet. The potential prospect of rapid population decline forces a complete rethink of the future. Instead of surging to global preeminence, China could end up preoccupied with how to care for an aging population. Instead of worrying about robots replacing jobs, China’s economy may require mass deployment of intelligent robots to keep its economy afloat.

Contradiction #6: Culture

In the aftermath of World War II, U.S. global primacy led to the export of U.S. culture, whether defined as blue jeans, rock and roll, or Big Macs. But there are already signs that U.S. cultural hegemony is in decline—Hollywood’s laser focus on making sure its big-box movies don’t anger Chinese censors being a leading indicator. So the question becomes: In China 2069, will the world be taking its pop-cultural cues from the Middle Kingdom?

The question is complicated by the fact that in contemporary China, freedom of expression has come under the most concentrated attack from the state since the entire “era of reform and opening” kicked off in the late 1970s. The Chinese Communist Party has done a far more effective job of policing the internet than most internet-savvy China watchers ever thought possible. Can a state that imposes a party line on all aspects of society become a cultural superstar?

It’s hard to escape the gloomy drumbeat of news from China today — repression in Xinjiang, the arrests and kidnappings of activists, the purging of internet news sites. The darkest vision of China 2069 imagines a state that makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a mild fantasy. But nearly everyone I interviewed for this story agreed that China currently boasts a generation gap that beggars description. The post-1980s generation — Chinese born after the reform era began — have grown up in a world drastically different from what their parents and grandparents experienced.

Chen Qiufan is convinced that tremendous changes are in store when demographic change finally pushes out the generation scarred by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward:

“After the younger generation takes over the propaganda system, things might be different. Subculture and pop culture (entertainment, manga, video games, animation, etc.) will become the mainstream. The power of intellectual discourse was suppressed for a long time, [but it] will be reincarnated into a virtual form. Everything serious and requiring in-depth thinking will be transformed into a more surface, entertaining virtual representation. [That will be] the battlefield of ideologies.”

China watchers looking in from the outside have been waiting a long time for a new generation to loosen the reins of cultural control. They have been consistently disappointed. But as I corresponded with writers like Chen and Baoshu and Xia Jia, all of whom are living and writing in China today, it started to seem feasible that their own work was a demonstration of Chen’s argument. In other words, the best place to seek a potent source of Chinese cultural influence on the world is in the science fiction that is being concocted by a new generation forged in the crucible of the future.

Chinese science fiction, the historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom told me, may be China’s most successful form of “soft power,” a cultural export that humanizes and illuminates the Chinese condition for the rest of the world. Ken Liu, the translator of Liu Cixin’s trilogy and the editor of two influential anthologies of Chinese science fiction short stories, makes a strong argument that it is a mistake to try to define Chinese science fiction as any single monolithic thing; its complexity and ambivalence reflect all the multifariousness of contemporary China. But it nevertheless still feels to me as if there is a flavor, or sensibility, to Chinese science fiction that is shaped by the fact that Chinese science fiction writers are already reporting from the front lines of the future. They know, viscerally, not only that anything is possible — because they’ve seen so much change in their own lives — but also that the costs of accelerated change can be both great and terrible.

Science fiction, Liu Cixin writes, is a “literature of possibilities.” So, too, then, is the very idea of China 2069. Because it’s hard to avoid the feeling, as one grapples with China’s path forward, that China will get to the future first. That’s what makes its science fiction so vital, and that’s why we should be paying attention.

Written by

20-year veteran of online journalism, formerly a lifer at Salon, now untethered. On Twitter @koxinga21

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About this MAGAZINE

2069

Bionic brains. Robots. Cutting-edge efforts to blunt the effects of climate change. The future of health care, and tech, and business. Our January issue of Medium magazine — 2069 — draws on reporting, expertise, and imagination to predict what life will be like in the next 50 years.

Bionic brains. Robots. Cutting-edge efforts to blunt the effects of climate change. The future of health care, and tech, and business. Our January issue of Medium magazine — 2069 — draws on reporting, expertise, and imagination to predict what life will be like in the next 50 years.

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