20 May 2021 - 21 May 2021

China Today and Tomorrow

Please see below for supplementary reading materials.

This Ditchley conference will focus on China, its internal state and sense of self today, its role in the region and world, and how these might evolve in years to come. 

There are broadly two current divergent narratives about China. The first is that China’s successful response to the pandemic has accelerated China’s ascent to be the world’s pre-eminent economic power. The Made in China 2025 strategy will also see China take the lead in some technologies beyond 5G, become self-sufficient in silicon chip production and free itself largely of external constraints on growth. China’s internal market will grow, lessening dependence on exports and that continued growth will maintain the bargain between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party through prosperity and stability. Retaining some elements of previous Chinese strategy though, this confidence is combined with a degree of humility: China is concerned with itself and its region, not becoming a global superpower or challenging the US. Economic supremacy is the aim but military strategy remains focused on defence, not increasing international leverage or scope of action.

The second competing narrative is that China’s position is more precarious than it appears. The Belt and Road Initiative will bring diplomatic support from client countries but not real economic gains. Human rights violations will damage China abroad. Internally the pressures on natural resources will prove hard to sustain. Democratic and free-market innovation, combined with a bit more industrial strategy, will outstrip China’s efforts. Careful attention to supply chains in the West will meanwhile reduce critical reliance on China and curb China’s economic expansion. This perceived fragility is often combined though with a sense of heightened Chinese ambition abroad, not just through the Belt and Road Initiative but in challenging the democratic global norms established since 1989 by presenting technologically-enabled and effective authoritarian rule as an alternative model for the world, rather than just a Chinese solution.

What is the evidence today for where we should settle between these narratives? What trends should we watch to determine likely future results? How is the Chinese Communist Party and the state it runs evolving? How is Chinese society, and the expectations of Chinese people, changing? Are Chinese actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, widely condemned in the West, new departures or continuations of previous policy? How effective and real is the techno-surveillance state often described? What are the economic prospects for China and especially its internal market? How will it cope with natural resource pressures and can it meet its targets on climate action? What about the demographic trends? How will the role of the Chinese finance sector evolve and the role of the renminbi globally vis-à-vis the dollar? Regionally, how does China see its relations with neighbours and especially with the Indo-Pacific democracies? What next for the Belt and Road Initiative? Will it deliver the results that China hopes? Globally, has there been a step shift in China’s ambitions and confidence, or does the Chinese leadership’s real focus remain at home? How stable is China ultimately? Would anyone wish for an unstable China?

This conversation should not be seen in isolation but as part of Ditchley's evolving programme, from our conference on world order last year, through discussions on the new space race, climate and recovery from the pandemic, including the prospects for cooperation with China; the prospects for a unified British and European approach to China and, looking ahead, to Transatlantic community relations with China; the Indo-Pacific and the relationship between Asian democracies, the West and China and, finally for this year, we will return in December to the question of world order: what kind of world is emerging from these conflicting trends and what can we do to shape it?