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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.