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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.

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