China's Perception of Existential Risk - SOAS China Institute

//China’s Perception of Existential Risk

China's Perception of Existential Risk

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)

By John Gittings | 20 February 2024

In recent years we have become ever more aware of multiple threats to the future existence of the human race – Existential Risks as they are often termed. The exponential rate of climate change, now affecting the global North as well as the South, is one such threat. The danger of nuclear war escalation (which in truth never went away) has become more evident, as we are reminded by the annual setting of the Doomsday Clock. And the Covid-19 pandemic, with multi-million deaths across the world, reinforces predictions of a catastrophe of even greater scale till now largely confined to futurology. (An early example was H G Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, 1933). This unholy trinity of threats has now been joined by a fourth – the existential risk that may be posed to our future existence by Artificial Intelligence (AI). So in a modern guise, but with unsettling echoes from the past, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have re-appeared on the horizon.


During the Covid lockdowns and restrictions in 2020-21 I began to reflect on the warning signals that the global community had missed in failing to anticipate the possibility of a world-wide pandemic, and on similar failures with regard to the nuclear and climate-change threats. I published my conclusions in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and I am now extending this work to focus on China’s understanding of existential risk: this commentary is a preliminary research note.


Chinese researchers are involved in several of the above institutions. I have yet to identify research bodies in China covering the whole field in a similar way to those listed above, but there are institutions that conduct research into one or other area, for example the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES), the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the long-established China Institute of Nuclear Energy (CIAE). How far these and other institutions carry out future risk assessment in their respective fields is a subject to investigate.


How should existential risk be described?  Most definitions are not limited to scenarios of human extinction, but include those that may lead to the collapse of, or the serious impairment of, human civilisation, or may “permanently and drastically reduce humanity’s potential”. Another useful term is “global catastrophic risk”. However it is defined, I suggest that any attempt to assess it should observe two important principles:


First, as set out in Climate Change: A Risk Assessment, a report published in 2015 by an international consortium including Tsinghua University: “[We should] consider the full range of probabilities, bearing in mind that a very low probability may correspond to a very high risk, if the impact is catastrophic”. The corollary to this is that a small given risk within a limited time will become a larger risk over a longer time frame. (The Oxford philosopher Toby Ord suggested a 1 in 6 chance of global catastrophe in the next hundred years).


Second, that in the formulation of policy any short-term gains for the current generation should be discounted against long-term losses for future generations. Policies should be “future-proofed” rather than based on immediate benefit, and should take account of global as well as national interests. As stated in the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda (2021), “The purpose of international cooperation in the twenty-first century is to achieve a set of vital common goals on which our welfare, and indeed survival, as a human race depend.”


Within this framework, my project will seek to establish to what extent Chinese policy in three fields, nuclear, climate change, and pandemics, (a) includes an awareness and assessment of existential risk, and (b) crucially, may result or have resulted in any modification of policy. I am not including AI in my study for the time being: in spite of its current high profile, I do not regard it as a threat on the same level, except in one scenario – the danger that the misapplication of AI might trigger a nuclear war.


Here are some preliminary thoughts on these three areas:

Dongfeng-5B missile. – Photo credit: IceUnshattered (Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear policy


China’s commitment to a no-first-use policy, and its relatively limited arsenal of nuclear weapons (although now being expanded), have been cited by Chinese scholars and by sympathetic external observers as putting China in a more moral category than the other major nuclear powers. As a recent paper by Xia Liping of Tongji University puts it, “humanitarianism is one of the most important factors for China in developing its nuclear doctrine”, and compared with the nuclear strategies of other powers, “Chinese doctrine has commanded higher morality within the international community”. However, questions have been raised about the durability of the no-first-use policy and the expansion of China’s nuclear capability. Leaving these aside, we need to assess how far the Chinese commitment to humanitarianism and nuclear disarmament goes beyond rhetoric (other nuclear powers also profess good intentions) or actually influences policy. We may note that China did not hesitate in 2018 to join the fellow nuclear members of the Permanent Five in affirming their opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and resisting any claim that the Treaty might in time become part of customary international law. China also joined the 2022 statement by the P5 affirming that a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought – a statement also designed to counter international support for the TPNW, and at variance with the actual nuclear postures and policies of all five powers.

An open cast coal mine near Hailar, Inner Mongolia. – Photo credit: Hereward L (Flickr) / CC BY 2.0

Climate change


This is the area of existential risk that is most elaborated in Chinese policy, indeed to a greater extent than by most other major carbon emitters — no other world leader expounds their views on environmental issues as copiously as President Xi Jinping. Discussion on China’s approach to the climate crisis has moved a long way, within mainland opinion as well as outside, over the last two decades. It is no longer regarded merely in terms of the “dilemma” facing China as it seeks to reconcile the demands of economic growth with the negative effect on the environment. That dilemma of course has not gone away: As frequently noted, China has made rapid progress in renewables, and has raised its targets for tackling climate change, but it is still the world’s largest consumer of coal, new power plants are still being opened in quantity, and it is the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases (although per capita emissions in the US are double those in China).


However, it is not just the setting of those new targets that is notable, but the elaboration of a comprehensive strategy of climate governance which, if translated into practice, would make a massive contribution to global sustainability. This has been repeatedly expressed by President Xi in the vivid phrase that the Chinese people deserve to have “clear rivers and green mountains” (綠水青山) as part of his “China Dream” – an aim reiterated on China’s first National Ecology Day in August 2023. These goals are set out formally in the ambition to build an “ecological civilisation” – adopting a concept formulated elsewhere in the 1980s and ‘90s but more recently taken up by China. (It was inserted into the CCP Charter in 2017 and is officially part of the Thought of Xi Jinping).


This grand design needs to be subjected to close scrutiny: to what extent is it more than a fine aspiration (less politely, “empty words”); how far does it influence, or can be reconciled with, actual policy decisions now and going forward; does the desire “at the higher levels” for its implementation translate into effective practice regionally or locally; and does the concept of “ecological civilisation” have the same meaning when applied externally through China’s “Belt and Road” strategy. All of these questions have been raised, including by Chinese scholars, some within the mainland although mostly working outside, and there is a wide spread of views as to whether China’s professed commitment may or may not become a powerful driver for global change.

Photo credit: QuantFoto (Flickr) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The pandemic threat


The severe but in retrospect relatively limited outbreak of SARS-1 in 2003 placed China in a good position to draw lessons for the prospect of a more lethal and/or widespread future pandemic. Premier Wen Jiabao pointed to one such lesson from “the struggle against SARS”:  the need to “emphasize coordinated development” (so that less developed rural areas would be able to tackle, and report on, a pandemic as well as was done in urban areas). The SARS experience led to what has been described as “new infrastructure, tools and personnel… developed as part of a nationwide overhaul of its [China’s] public health system…” Greater importance was supposed to be attached to the nation’s medical and health systems after the 18th National Party Congress in 2012.


It is however unclear how far the risk of a more devastating pandemic was seen as a priority to be addressed in the two decades following SARS-1. When in 2018 a new Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) was set up, its main role was to plan remedial action in case of “fire, flood, drought and geographical disasters”, and when Covid-19 broke out, the MEM was not regarded as the “competent authority for public health emergency response”. Early on in this second pandemic, the CCP’s theoretical journal Qiushi published a fairly candid assessment of “shortcomings” in the “system and mechanism for the prevention and control of major epidemics”. These included weak capacity in disease control institutions “at all levels”, deficiencies in the emergency response mechanism for major epidemics, and a lack of publicity and education for the general public. How far such shortcomings have been adequately addressed, and whether a greater awareness of the risk of a new pandemic now exists, will be questions to address. I hope that together with my research in the other two areas — nuclear threat and climate change — this will contribute to a better understanding of China’s perception of existential risk.


A final observation: If one employs an online search engine to look for “China” and “existential risk”, the entries that appear most readily have to do with something very different – the assertion by some Western politicians and commentators that China presents an “existential threat” to their national security and to the currently accepted, and theoretically “rule-based”, international architecture. This leads one into a very different sphere of argument which is not the subject of my research. However there is a sense in which the two are connected. To the extent that the “West” regards China as an existential threat, and that China has the reverse antagonistic view, effective cooperation in order to tackle the real existential risks facing the entire world will be diminished. This is a much greater “threat” than those that are identified — or imagined — by either side.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. He was foreign leader-writer and East Asia editor at The Guardian for many years, retiring in 2003, and covered major events in the area from the late 1970s onwards. His books include The Changing Face of China (2005), China Through the Sliding Door (1999), Real China (1996), Superpowers in Collision (with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Steele (1982), The World and China (1974), and The Role of the Chinese Army (1966). In retirement he has worked on peace history, publishing The Glorious Art of Peace (OUP, 2012 & 2018).


His current research project is into China’s perception of existential risk, particularly in the areas of pandemic, climate change and nuclear weapons.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.