Future Thoughts: Conceptions of the Future in China

19th–21st Century
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room A

  • Organised by Christine Moll-Murata
  • Christine Moll-Murata, “China’s Future as Anticipated by Economists and Financial Specialists in the Republic of China, 1911–1949”
  • Laura Pflug, “Saving China: 19th-Century Thoughts of a Muslim Confucian”
  • Laura De Giorgi, “The Future in Human Hands. Chinese Approaches towards Artificial Intelligence”
  • Jörn-Carsten Gottwald, Anna Caspari, “The Evolution of Financial Governance with Chinese Characteristics”
  • Harriet Zurndorfer, Discussant

In this panel, historians and political scientists analyse historical and contemporary Chinese concepts of the future from 1840 to nowadays. China’s mid-19th century crises sparked new ideas about how the ‘future’ might take shape; in place of the traditional cyclical pattern, some thinkers conceived the future in terms of linear progression. The first paper by Laura Pflug looks at the statecraft writings of a Hui Confucian scholar Jiang Xiangan (1795–1854) who formulated suggestions for saving China from foreign colonialist encroachment. During the late Qing and Republican period, weilai (未來 remote future) and jianglai (將來 imminent future) were applied increasingly to legitimise particular policies. One example is the argumentation current in the 1930s for the introduction of the fabi (法幣) currency replacing the centuries-old silver standard, discussed in the paper by Christine Moll-Murata. Linking up with financial governance, the next paper by Jörn-Carsten Gottwald shows how under the impact of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, new concepts of the future of financial transaction on a global scale were developed in the framework of big paradigms such as “Belt-and-Road” or “China Dream”. The fourth paper by Laura De Giorgi focuses on Chinese attitudes towards Artificial Intelligence and offers an explanation of how “futurist” technology is turning to the past as a source of confidence and legitimation, thus echoing patterns of the nineteenth-century reflections on the future concept.

Christine Moll-Murata, “China’s Future as Anticipated by Economists and Financial Specialists in the Republic of China, 1911–1949”

As analyses of early twentieth-century newspapers and journals show, the terms weilai (未來 remote future) and jianglai (將來 imminent future) increasingly appeared in argumentation and pleas for legitimating political action. This paper takes a closer look at statements on the political economy and aims to identify the particular importance of the year 1933 in reflections on the future of that economy. In that year, a New Year’s supplement was included in the popular journal Dongfang zazhi in which more than a hundred intellectuals and figures of public life, comprising economists, entrepreneurs, and bankers, formulated their “dreams” both for China’s and their individual futures. The evidence shows that the desire expressed most firmly was to regain political sovereignty and to realise greater social equality. With regard to the economy, independence, but also integration into the world economy on equal terms were considered the most pressing issues. The paper will analyse how the future was deployed as a means to legitimate the political action of the ruling party Guomindang, including fiscal policies and the introduction of a new currency, the fabi 法幣. The disastrous inflation during the war years, probably the main reason for the demise and exodus of the Nationalist government, provoked many to look into a bleak, dystopian future and helped the Communist Party to succeed, again with a political agenda that was full of promises for the future but based on socialist principles.

Laura Pflug, “Saving China: 19th-Century Thoughts of a Muslim Confucian”

China’s early and mid-19th century crises generated the historical and political imagination of leading thinkers and officials. Among the most famous of these persons were the dynamic reform-minded intellectuals Ruan Yuan, Wei Yuan, and Gong Zizhen. Lesser well-known is one of Ruan Yuan’s students, the Hui (Moslem) Confucian scholar Jiang Xiangnan who engaged himself in political questions of the day but never held public office. This presentation looks at a portion of Jiang’s collected works and aims to demonstrate the influence of Ruan, Wei, and Gong on his thinking. On the one hand, Jiangʼs statecraft writings mirror their pragmatic approach to urgent topics of the time such as the opium issue. On the other hand, however, his hopes for securing China’s future were deeply linked with commonly-held views of its distant past. Being a rigorous Confucian scholar, he saw himself as a student of ʻZhou studiesʼ and perceived the idealised notion of Chinese antiquity as a paragon of ideal governance. This paper will address Jiang’s efforts to actively shape Qing China’s (then) present and future as a statecraft scholar and to uncover the political ideals underlying his endeavours.

Laura De Giorgi, “The Future in Human Hands. Chinese Approaches towards Artificial Intelligence”

This paper looks at the reception of Yuval Harari’s book A Short History of the Future (in Chinese Weilai jianshi 未来 简史) in 2017 in order to analyse how the challenges to the concept of “human-driven” by the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are framed by official and social media discourse on the future in China. Harari’s book has prompted several reflections and comments on the topic in newspapers and websites, boosted also by the forecast of the rapid rise of the People’s Republic of China as a leading world technological power in this field. The topic of the impact of AI, which has also been touched upon by the philosopher Zhao Tingyang, draws on Harari’s historical perspective. Although Harari is sceptical about the meaning of the past experience for governing the future, Chinese readers seem to believe otherwise. Considering the broadly optimistic view which dominates Chinese approaches to technical singularity, the paper will investigate the place that has been given in China to historical imagination as a source of confidence in the capacity of humans to control future technological changes.

Jörn-Carsten Gottwald, Anna Caspari, “The Evolution of Financial Governance with Chinese Characteristics

In 2016, the People’s Republic of China hosted the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Hangzhou. The Chinese initiatives presented there linked domestic reform policies with the future G20 agenda and emphasised the leadership role of the PRC on the global stage. This paper aims to trace the emergence of Chinese reform concepts for financial governance both historically, and in view of current PRC policies on global financial governance. While the Republic of China had been a major participant at the Bretton Woods Conference which defined the basic pillars of the post-WWII order, the PRC remained outside and at the fringes of this predominantly trans-Atlantic system for more than thirty years. The first steps for China to enter the global arena occurred in the early Reform era but were dominated by domestic development priorities. However, once the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 shook the existing order and led to the establishment of the new G20 at summit level, an initially reluctant Chinese leadership found itself under increasing pressure to develop concepts for the future of financial governance. The paper identifies the emergence of key aspects of China’s ideas regarding the future of global financial governance with a theoretical approach to its key concepts, including the ‘China Dream’ (中国梦), ‘Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind’ (构建人类命运共同体), and recent policies regarding financial technology (fintech; 金融科技).

Event Timeslots (1)

Room A
19th–21st Century