China’s Antifragile Ambitions

HONG KONG – China has once again reached a crossroads on its journey toward inclusive, sustainable prosperity. At the Chinese Communist Party’s congress in November, the new leadership was tasked with plotting the country’s path for the next ten years, which entails modernizing China’s social, political, and economic systems within the constraints of its history and changing geopolitical context.

By any standards, the reform agenda is ambitious – especially given a fragile and unaccommodating external environment. Within the next decade, China’s leaders must design and implement reforms to combat corruption; support migration to cities (such as liberalizing the house-registration system); promote technological innovation; rebalance sources of economic growth; raise environmental and labor standards; and build the country’s social-welfare system, including health care, education, and social security.

To ensure a system’s sustainability, its design must account for what Nassim N. Taleb called rare “black swan” events – which, as the global economic crisis demonstrated, do occur, with devastating consequences. But measures to make systems more “resilient” or “robust” would be incomplete. They should not only be able to withstand volatility; they should be primed to profit from stress and chaos.

Recently, Taleb coined the term “antifragile” to describe a system that benefits from inherent uncertainty, volatility, and disorder. He pointed out that, while rigid systems may seem more stable, they are not equipped to cope with unexpected shocks, making them fragile in the long run. By contrast, frequent exposure to localized, temporary volatility forces systems to become more dynamic and flexible, enhancing their capacity to thrive under pressure.