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Chengdu skyline
The skyline of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, exemplifies how rapidly China's urban areas are modernizing  

Experts consider possible scenarios for the Middle Kingdom 50 years from now

"I know no way of judging of the future but by the past."

-- Patrick Henry

(CNN) -- Since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, China has gone through some of the most dramatic changes in its history. Analysts believe the next 50 years will bring another series of radical shifts in China, affecting its people, its government and the world.

China at a glance

Here are some of the major issues challenging China in the next half-century:


"In the next 50 years, China will have to face three population 'peaks,'" said Hu Angang, a professor at Qinghua University.

More than 100 million rural Chinese have moved to the cities seeking work, creating an undocumented, or "floating," population over which the government has little control  

Speaking during a panel discussion convened in July 1999 by TIME magazine and the World Economic Forum, Hu said that in 2020 China's working population, age 15 to 64, will total around 1 billion. "That means we will have to create a lot of new jobs," he said.

By 2030 China's population is expected to reach 1.6 billion, prompting concerns about food supply. And, Hu said, the third peak will be in 2040, when about 320 million Chinese will be 60 or older.

"People who are 20 now will be 60 and ready to retire in 2040," said Zhang Yunling, another TIME forum speaker who is director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "During the 40 years in between, they will have to accumulate wealth for their retirement life. So it's urgent for them to start planning now."

China's population also is expected to become more urbanized in the next 50 years. "Eighty percent of the population will move to urban areas," Zhang predicted. "They will not rely on agriculture for their livelihood. That's a fundamental change in society: 500 million people will move, changing their lives, changing culture, changing values."

Food and water

Chinese farm
As a percentage of China's total land area, farms like this are scarce and getting scarcer because of soil erosion, encroaching population and pollution  

China has one-fifth of the world's population, but only about 7 percent of the globe's arable land. Of that, only about 33 percent is believed to be productive, and the amount of arable land is declining because of soil erosion and the demands of a growing population. Farms also face threats from industrial and agricultural pollution.

China's consumption of water already rivals that of the United States and continues to rise. Its total energy consumption is second only to the United States, and China is the second largest emitter of industrial carbon dioxide pollution.

Given those variables, some analysts believe China will become much more dependent on food imports. But that scenario might change, depending on future technological advances and newly installed government conservation and environmental policies.

"The future of agriculture depends largely on genetic engineering and mechanization, so it's very possible that the [crop] yields could rise a lot," said Andy Xie, executive director at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, speaking at the TIME forum.

China's expected population shift from rural to urban might actually work in favor of the nation's agriculture -- if it becomes more efficient.

"Labor is not the issue, because now the labor productivity of Chinese farms is very low," said Fan Gang, director at the National Economic Research Institute, another TIME forum speaker. "Many rural people are under-employed. Nominally, there are a lot of workers. Actually, they can be reduced by one-third to one-half without changing output."


There are more than 100 million people who comprise what is described as a "floating population" -- rural Chinese who have migrated to the cities in search of employment.

This S.C. Johnson & Son factory in Shanghai, which produces 10 million packets of Raid bug killer a year, didn't make a profit until 1998, after 11 years in business. Economists predict a bright future for China's factories and consumer markets, but investors have learned to be patient.  

Widespread unemployment, due in large part to several decades of economic reforms, is expected to be an issue in China for some time to come, as is the problem of pollution caused by rapid industrialization.

A report issued in Hong Kong at the World Bank's annual meeting in 1997 and titled "China 2020" warned Beijing of the social ramifications of such rapid economic changes.

Commenting on the report, Nicholas Hope, former director of the World Bank's China and Mongolia department, told The New York Times that corruption, which plagues much of official China, is a "cancer" on the nation's society and economic future.

There is a possibility, however, that some of that floating population might be absorbed by new business enterprises.

Reform of many of China's state-run industries, overseas investment, new technologies and rapid urbanization are expected to help pull China into the ranks of the world's industrialized nations.

Flemming Larsen, deputy director of the research department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told a May 1999 news conference in Beijing that he was optimistic about China's long-term economic growth, despite the recent Asian financial crisis. The IMF predicts China's gross domestic product will continue to grow for the next several years.

"I'm very optimistic about the next 50 years," said Fan Gang. "The gap between China and the developed world will be narrower, both in terms of economic growth and in institutions."


National People's Congress
The National People's Congress is considering legal reforms to accommodate the evolving market economy; concepts such as freedom of speech and assembly are not on the agenda  

"The most important development in China's future will be the movement toward the rule of law," said Andy Xie. "It's the foundation of a modern economy, in which people with ideas create wealth, not the people who have control over capital."

China's National People's Congress in March 1998 outlined a five-year plan that proposed a broad spectrum of legal reforms. The reforms are expected to affect investment and financial transactions, state-owned enterprises, the nation's housing system and government organizations.

"In the past, growth came from the fact that society was stable," Huang Yasheng, associate professor at the Harvard University business school, told the TIME forum. "In the future, returns will be coming from dynamic, mobile people and capital, and therefore there has to be some sort of legal system to accommodate that."

Whether the future Chinese legal system will accommodate such concepts as freedom of speech, expression and assembly is an issue that remains unanswered.


"If economic growth is reasonably robust, then you'll gradually get political change," said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, at the TIME forum. "But if you don't have economic growth in China, then the prospects of moving in a more democratic, more pluralistic direction are much more limited."

"The leadership is stable, there is no succession crisis or government struggle," Robert Ross, professor of political science at Boston University, told CNN Interactive. "But we are seeing a government vulnerable on issues such as the floating population, state enterprise reform, the United States."

China's ruling Communist Party, Ross said, "is a party worried about where it will be in 10 or 15 years. They haven't managed corruption well, crime well, and the economy appears to be receding. The major issue will be the economy."


Chinese honor guard
An honor guard of the world's largest standing army marches in Tiananmen Square. The question is whether China will use its military to expand its influence in Asia.  

China is engaged in a major effort to modernize its military, which includes the world's largest standing army.

One of the questions asked by experts is whether China would use a revamped military to extend its influence in Asia and elsewhere.

The People's Liberation Army and its related industries have an important role in China's economy. But international concerns -- especially regarding China-U.S. relations -- are also shaping the nation's military strategy.

"Economic development has replaced military strength, and a stable, cooperative relationship has replaced the ideological gap of the Cold War," said Zhang Yunling. "Still, there's been a great shift since the Kosovo crisis. Chinese are worried about future U.S. domination. It's clear that the U.S. will dominate the world in the next 50 years. If we fail to maintain a stable and peaceful relationship, China will have to use more resources to develop its military strength."

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