There is the oft-repeated mantra that Chinese communist leaders have a wide time horizon and think strategically deep into the future. We don’t actually know if that’s true; most probably not, not any more than other world leaders anyway. But even if they do, how? Many commentators, though, both in China and overseas, envision a triumphant China in the coming decades. Now, is that forward policy planning, or just fantasising (in China) and fearmongering (in the West)? “Prediction is very hard, particularly when it’s about the future,” quipped baseball legend Yogi Berra. I took this to heart after years of dabbling in the stock markets, religiously following so-called stock gurus, and in the end getting nowhere, nay, losing lots of money. The only near certainty for me is that dumb money like mine almost always loses, and that “smart” money rarely beats a reasonably well-constructed index over a time period or outperforms the proverbial monkeys throwing darts, that is, random stock pickings. Well, it turns out the track records of political analysts are pretty much the same as stock gurus. We are not talking about those on TV or YouTube, but seasoned diplomats and trained intelligence analysts. A paper, “A Better Crystal Ball: The Right Way to Think About the Future”, published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs , offers an intriguing take on this phenomenon. “Historians and foreign policy experts are often bad forecasters,” the two authors wrote. “In 2005, one of us, Philip Tetlock, published a study demonstrating that seasoned political experts had trouble outperforming “dart-tossing chimpanzees” – random guesses – when it came to predicting global events. The experts fared even worse against amateur news junkies. Overconfidence was the norm, not the exception.” The US State Department has found a similar phenomenon among its diplomats. Tetlock and J. Peter Scoblic wrote: “In a statistical analysis of nearly 2 million State Department cables sent in the 1970s, for instance, one recent study demonstrated that US diplomats were often bad at estimating the historical importance of contemporaneous events.” I wouldn’t say it’s just US diplomats, though, but probably everyone. I have often thought listening to taxi drivers pontifying on current affairs is about as educational and predictive as following so-called experts. Tetlock and Scoblic argue there are better ways of dealing with the future: by not predicting a single outcome but imagining multiple futures, while assigning each a probability value. This means, for them, combining scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting. Just this summer, the famed Rand Corporation published such a study of China in 2050. That automatically piqued my interest. The study envisions – start the drum rolls – a triumphant China, ascendant China, stagnant China, or imploding China. So, from world dominance to total collapse, and everything in between? Humm, that pretty much covers most possible outcomes! Actually, the study, “China’s Grand Strategy Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition” does more than that. Here are its four “probabilistic scenarios”: – A triumphant China is least likely because such an outcome presumes little margin for error and the absence of any major crisis or serious setback between now and 2050. – An imploding China is not likely because, to date, Chinese leaders have proved skilled at organising and planning, adept at surmounting crises, and deft at adapting and adjusting to changing conditions. – By 2050, China most likely will have experienced some mixture of successes and failures, and the most plausible scenarios would be an ascendant China or a stagnant China. In the former scenario, China will be largely successful in achieving its long-term goals, while, in the latter scenario, China will confront major challenges and will be mostly unsuccessful in implementing its grand strategy. That’s quite reasonable. The study then charts three possible outcomes in China-US relations relative to the four scenarios: parallel partners, colliding competitors, or diverging directions. – The parallel partners trajectory is a continuation of the state of US-China relations in 2018. This trajectory is most likely to occur with a stagnant China and probably an ascending China. – The colliding competitors’ trajectory is most likely to manifest in a triumphant China scenario in which Beijing becomes more confident and assertive. – The diverging directions trajectory is most likely to occur in an imploding China scenario because Beijing will be preoccupied with mounting domestic problems. So, a complete economic decoupling is unlikely. Okay, many people think that, too. But, how does all this crystal-balling work in practice? Tetlock and Scoblic recommend a time-tested investment strategy: wide diversification. Ask a whole cluster of related but sharply defined questions about each scenario and assign probabilistic answers to each. Look whether the answers point towards the same direction or are all over the place. They wrote: “Much as diversified stock portfolios spread risk through multiple, uncorrelated investments, the diversity of question clusters prevents forecasters from overweighting a potentially unimportant signpost and mistakenly concluding that a particular scenario is coming to pass. “The answer lies in developing clusters of questions that give early, forecastable indications of which envisioned future is likely to emerge, thus allowing policymakers to place smarter bets sooner. “Instead of evaluating the likelihood of a long-term scenario as a whole, question clusters allow analysts to break down potential futures into a series of clear and forecastable signposts that are observable in the short run. “Questions should be chosen not only for their individual diagnostic value but also for their diversity as a set, so that each cluster provides the greatest amount of information about which imagined future is emerging – or which elements of which envisioned futures are emerging.” All very well. I learned something from this paper, though I doubt it would make me a better stock punter. But I have always had this question in the back of my mind about predictions ever since I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation sci-fi series in which the maths genius Hari Seldon invented “psychohistory” that could predict future millennia, including the collapse of galactic empires. It turned out, Asimov once recalled in an interview, “psychohistory” was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , rather than Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. But perhaps he was thinking of Heisenberg after all. One of psychohistory’s axioms is that the human collective whose future is being predicted cannot be aware of the prediction; otherwise, it would be like the particle being disturbed by the very act of its measurement. But how can, say, China and the US not be aware of each other’s predicaments and predictions? Wouldn’t there be social scientists and policy planners in both countries who try to predict outcomes predicated on predictions from their rivals, who in turn counter them with other strategies to try to foil the other’s strategies and preferred outcomes? I bet someone, somewhere within the Chinese government and think tanks, there are already Chinese versions of Tetlock and Scoblic and Hari Seldon using artificial intelligence and supercomputers to model whether there will be a triumphant US, declining US, stagnant US, or imploding US in the coming decades. Personally, I am not all that bright. Instead of predicting the future, I just prepare for the worst, in investment and life outcomes. If they don’t pan out, well, love to be wrong.