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CHINA RISING: Get ready for China's century

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — At the north end of Beijing's Imperial Palace stands Coal Hill, a man-made summit built with the sweat and blood of countless labourers. Climb it and you can absorb a sight that for 500 years, only emperors and their retainers could see: the inner precincts of the Forbidden City. With its arching, tiled roofs of mustard yellow and its high vermillion walls, this is the secret heart of the most inward-looking empire the world has ever seen.

For centuries, China shut itself off from the rest of humanity. Secure in its cultural superiority, disdainful of Western ideas and science, it welcomed foreigners only as supplicants, forcing them to kowtow before its emperors ”with ashen face and trembling knees” behind those walls.

But today, a new Chinese empire is rising, one that looks outward instead of in. Emboldened by 25 years of pell-mell economic growth, a reborn China is bidding to become a great power again — perhaps the great power.

It was Napoleon who warned, ”Let China sleep, for when she awakes she will shake the world.” Look down from Coal Hill and you can almost feel the tremors. Before you, to the south, lie the hundreds of palaces and lesser buildings of the imperial sanctuary; beyond that, the sweeping expanse of Tiananmen Square and the citadels of Communist power on its flanks.

Look to the east or west, and the new China comes into focus. Dozens of construction cranes jut into the sky. Satellite dishes top the summits of gleaming new hotels and office towers. As the sun sets in the west and a full autumn moon rises, the neon lights of a global city blink to life, advertising Western fashions, Western movies, Western values.

After centuries of isolation and stagnation followed by 100 years of civil war, revolution, famine and foreign occupation, China is rejoining the modern world, determined to restore the wealth, power and status that are the birthright of the planet's most populous country and oldest continuous civilization.

With its lost years behind it, it has a powerful, almost desperate yearning to catch up with the rest of the world. In place of the ancient emperor cult and the fleeting cult of Mao, it has adopted a new religion: the cult of the new. Like the nouveaux riches of its big cities in their Rolex watches and Prada boots, China wants the best, the latest, the shiniest of everything.

If other big cities have airport-to-downtown railways, Shanghai must have the latest, coolest kind: a magnetic levitation train. If other cities have trendy architecture, Beijing brings in ultra-trendy Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to design its radical new state television building. High culture? Shanghai plans to build 100 museums and vie with Paris and New York as a capital of art and learning.

At last count, China had 595 McDonald's restaurants in 105 cities. Beijing alone has more than 100 highway overpasses, proudly advertised on the country's banknotes. The number of cellphone users is growing by five million a month.

This is a country rushing headlong into the future — building, wrecking, earning, accumulating, striving, competing; restless, ingenious, irrepressible, brassy, boastful, fearful.

You don't have to be in China to experience its rise.

In the past few years, and this year more than ever, people in Canada and around the world have begun to feel it in their everyday lives. At the local Wal-Mart, you have China to thank for $10 children's jeans and $50 DVD players. At the gas pump, you can blame China's insatiable demand for oil for 90-cents-a-litre fuel.

If you are an employee of Canadian mining company Noranda, your new boss may soon be the Beijing government. If you have a mortgage, China has helped you out by investing some of its more than $440-billion of foreign exchange reserves in U.S. Treasury bills and keeping interest rates down throughout North America.

Quite suddenly, China has emerged as a moving force of the global economy. Not only is it the new workshop of the world, churning out a third of its computers, half of its digital cameras and DVD players, half of its clothing and two-thirds of its photocopiers and microwave ovens. It is also a voracious importer, gobbling up 40 per cent of the world's cement last year and pushing up the price of steel, copper, iron ore and soybeans, as well as oil.

And this is only the beginning. On present trends, China could overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy by 2016 and take the top spot from the United States by 2040.

Look a little further into the distance, and China looms even larger. Even if its growth slows to 4 or 5 per cent a year from the current 9 per cent, it would have an output of $40-trillion by 2054. Today, all Group of Eight economies together produce only half that figure.

Think of how far it has already come. Just 20 years ago, a sunset visitor to Coal Hill would have looked down on a sea of bicycles carrying commuters in Mao suits through a cityscape of dingy apartment blocks and ancient neighbourhoods toward their jobs in outmoded, state-run factories.

But in 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a decision that, looking back, was one of the most daring of the 20th century. Casting aside Communist orthodoxy and declaring that ”to get rich is glorious” — a phrase that could be the slogan of the new China — he began opening the country's closed, centrally planned economy.

Released from the bondage of central planning, the Chinese quickly exhibited the genius for commerce and trade that characterize Chinese communities from Hong Kong to Singapore to Canada. Their dynamism has transformed China at developmental light speed, turning a peasant society into an industrializing nation with more than 236,000 millionaires.

Of course, many things could still interrupt China's progress. With its immature stock market, shaky banking system and hundreds of rusting state-owned businesses — not to speak of its outmoded, undemocratic political system — China is bound to take a tumble somewhere along the road to riches. But, then, the United States went through no fewer than 10 boom-and-bust cycles during its rise to economic supremacy in the 19th century.

That rise changed the face of the world, and China has 260 times as many people as the United States did then. As veteran Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once said: ”It's not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of man.”

But what kind of player? While he was U.S. president, Bill Clinton said that the fate of the world hangs on how China defines its greatness. Will it be like Japan after the Second World War, content to grow wealthy and keep a low profile? Or will it be more like Germany before the First World War — arrogant, aggrieved and aggressive?

That is probably the biggest question mark hanging over the first half of the 21st century, and one of the most disputed. Bookshelves groan with books heralding the ”Coming Conflict” with China or the ”Coming Collapse” of China. The country's boom is either the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, or the biggest threat; either awe-inspiring miracle, or approaching disaster; either the best news in years, or the worst.

Consider the good news first. Since Deng Xiaoping executed China's historic U-turn at a session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1978, 270 million people have climbed out of poverty — the most successful development project in history, and a slap in the face for those who say globalization helps only the rich.

China had such a miserable 20th century — from the chaos of its warlord era, to invasion by the Japanese, to civil war between Nationalists and Communists, to the famine and fanaticism of Mao's reign — that the early 21st looks like a golden era by comparison. Despite the corruption, authoritarianism and contempt for human rights shown by their governing regime, China's 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humankind, are generally richer, safer and freer than they have ever been.

What is good news for the Chinese is also good for everyone else.

Today's stable, growing China is far less threatening than the poor, paranoid version of Maoist times, when the country spat venom at the ”imperialist West” and went to war with the United States (and Canada) over Korea, with India on its Himalayan frontier and nearly with the Soviet Union over their common border. It may be a simple coincidence, but China has not fought a war with anyone since it took on Vietnam in 1979, a year after launching its reforms.

China's economic rise should lift all boats, improving incomes around the globe. Despite fears about outsourcing to and competition from China, its boom has already helped pull Japan out of the longest downturn in its postwar history and helped the United States recover from its recent recession.

First to cash in will be resource-rich countries such as Canada, which will keep busy supplying China with timber, paper, aluminum and other commodities. Consumers should be winners, too. Investment house Morgan Stanley estimates that American shoppers have already saved about $100-billion because of lower prices on clothing, shoes and household supplies from China.

Now, the bad news.

The world's newest economic giant is essentially a dictatorship. Just last month, President Hu Jintao, who is unelected, denounced Western-style democracy as a ”blind alley” for China. Although they dress in business suits and wear friendly smiles for foreign visitors, Beijing's leaders are a self-selected cabal of Communist Party insiders accountable only to themselves. That makes them insecure, and therefore dangerous.

What is worse, they lead a country with grand ambitions and deep resentments. China is not Japan; nothing in its history suggests that it will be happy to grow rich selling socks and motherboards to the world while someone else makes the decisions. It is no accident that Chinese still call their country Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom, a name that reflects its historic self-image as the one true centre of civilization.

Because of its huge population, China had the biggest economy in the world until the United States passed it in the 1880s. Then came a quick and traumatic decline. Proud China became the doormat of the Western powers, which occupied its ports, burnt its Summer Palace and flooded it with opium to pay for their purchases of tea and silk. The sting of those insults still lingers.

That is why historians sometimes compare it with Germany, which entered the 20th century feeling buoyed by its recent economic success but nervous about its place in the world and angry about its perceived exclusion from the big-power game. Today's China shares that mix of confidence and insecurity. With 14 countries on its border and a history of foreign invasions, it feels vulnerable and defensive even as its power grows. Ross Terrill, the American author of a recent book on China's rise, calls the modern Chinese state ”pretentious, aggrieved and fearful.”

As China grows more powerful, these impulses are bound to assert themselves more often. The aim of its foreign policy is clear: to make up for past humiliations by restoring China's fuqiang — its wealth and power. In time, a confident, growing China, a giant chip on its shoulder, is bound to challenge the world's balance of power, not just in Asia but around the world. If any country has a chance of replacing the United States as king of the hill, it is China. If it remains undemocratic, it may also pose an ideological challenge to the liberal values of the West — an example, it will say, of how societies can have prosperity without ”Western” democracy and human rights.

Beijing is already flexing its new muscles. When Washington slapped duties on China for ”dumping” cheap products on the U.S. market last year, Beijing quickly retaliated by cancelling a high-profile mission to the United States to buy American farm goods. Moving to protect its supply of vital raw materials, it successfully pressured the United Nations Security Council to water down a resolution threatening the government of Sudan with sanctions over its role in the refugee crisis there.

In years to come, it could find itself propping up more regimes that supply its resources or host its industries, just as the United States often supports them today. David Hale, a U.S. Sinologist, says it is not far-fetched to imagine a day when Chinese troops set out to put down a revolt against the Saudi royal family.

In the past, China has had few scruples about backing unpleasant regimes. It has sent nuclear equipment to Pakistan, chemical-weapons material to Libya and missile technology to Iran. It stood with the murderous Khmer Rouge of Cambodia until the bitter end, and even now supports the brutal junta that rules Myanmar.

For the time being, however, China is on its best behaviour. Since Deng's great opening, the country has joined dozens of international clubs, from the World Trade Organization to the International Labour Organization to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Last year, Mr. Hu attended a North-South dialogue sponsored by the G8, a group Beijing once denounced as a clique of the Western powers.

China has patched up relations with its old rival, India, and stepped up ties with France, Russia, Germany and the European Union. To show it is a good global citizen, it is sending troops to Haiti under the UN's blue flag, the biggest Chinese deployment of its kind.

Everywhere they go, Mr. Hu and his colleagues insist that China is a ”status quo” power with no interest in climbing the greasy pole of world domination. As they are quick to point out, they have no history of conquering foreign peoples (unless you count the Tibetans, which they don't). Their slogan of the moment, ”peaceful rise,” is designed to comfort a fretful world.

Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing told The Globe's Geoffrey York this week, ”China's development will not threaten anybody or compromise their interests.”

In their own backyard, the Chinese have made no move to challenge the military mastery of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, as the Soviet Union did by building a vast, blue-water navy capable of projecting force far beyond its own shores. Unlike the rising United States, which put its foot down over European meddling in its hemisphere in 1823, China has as yet pronounced no Monroe doctrine for Asia.

Even if Beijing is just biding its time, it has a long way to go before it becomes a superpower that can go toe-to-toe with Washington.

China started from such a low point that, even after 20 years as the world's fastest-growing economy, its per capita output is only about $1,000 (U.S.), 136th in the world and about on par with Honduras, Morocco or the Philippines. And despite spending tens of billions on arms over the past decade, it still can't come close to matching the United States, which spends seven times as much on its military.

In fact, if the world has anything to fear from China in the short run, it is not its strength but its weakness. Behind the glitter of its booming cities, China has enormous problems: rampant pollution; a rising income gap between rich cities and poor countryside; mass unemployment in less-industrialized regions.

If China goes off the rails, all of East Asia, indeed all of the world, would feel it. Threatened with collapse, the Communist regime might easily play the patriot card by invading the ”renegade province” of Taiwan and returning it to Chinese hands.

But in the fall of 2004, failure and war are the last things on Chinese minds. With so much pain and turmoil in their recent past, its people are grabbing the chance to fulfill the words of the Chinese proverb: Live long and prosper. Average life expectancy has risen to 71 years. Four-fifths of urban homes have refrigerators and washing machines, half have air conditioners and DVD players, and a fifth have computers. Car sales are rising by more than 40 per cent a year.

In just four years, China will celebrate its success with a giant coming-out party: the Beijing Olympics. A big digital clock in Tiananmen Square ticks down the minutes until the Games open. A short distance away, on Coal Hill, people gather on autumn days to watch the sun go down.

On this particular evening, the air is cool and still. A young couple embraces. A graceful old man performs tai chi. As the dark gathers, a bat, Chinese symbol of good fortune, flits around a pagoda roof. From the city below, comes the ceaseless din of traffic — the sound of China rising.

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