What is the worst case scenario for China in the next 10-20 years which has at least a 10 percent likelihood?
The respondents included professors, engineers and government officials. Interestingly, no one I asked mentioned social or environmental or economic collapse, or even conflict over Taiwan. More than one person did mention the possibility of trade conflict leading to runaway nationalistic response. But if that's the worst case scenario, I consider the future pretty bright.
One particularly insightful analysis from a Harvard-trained Tsinghua professor described the present Chinese system of governance as favoring stability and slow change. He noted that leaders, both at his university and within the central party, are elected by vote in a process involving numerous stakeholders. (The mechanics of this voting process, while apparently strict and rule-based, is kept secret from the general public. Exactly how this system evolved into being over the last 30 years was unknown even to our analyst, but it's easy to imagine that a system favoring stability would have been favored by people who clearly remember Mao and the cultural revolution.) The stakeholders represent a broad spectrum of interests, including those of retired former officials and, in the case of his university, prominent former professors and administrators. To avoid a veto from any particular interest group, leaders tend to favor consensus and to eschew extreme positions. Significant change can only occur after consensus emerges among a substantial majority of stakeholders.
An example of an emergent policy shift is the recent government emphasis on reducing inequality and helping the rural population: apparently there is now a broad consensus that things have gone too far. Just a few years ago news stories often noted that modest school fees prevented peasant children from completing their education. On this trip, I was told that such fees have, at least theoretically, been waived. (Someone who knows the real situation should please let me know, but at least that is what I was told while in China.)
A consensus-driven system will tend to allow rather obvious problems to get out of hand, at least for while. If addressing the problem requires a significant policy shift, then action has to wait until essentially everyone agrees on both the problem and the solution! It's plausible to me that this governance model is consistent with recent Chinese actions (or inaction) related to the urban-rural divide, pollution and the environment, and (gulp!) dollar reserve accumulation. Nothing happens for a long time, but then, suddenly, policies can shift radically. This sounds unwieldy, though grappling with obvious but difficult problems isn't exactly something that our own system has been good at recently -- see, for example, fiscal deficits, health care, financial regulation, income inequality, energy policy, etc., etc.
For related discussion, see Is there a China model?