China Rising: Small World, Big Stakes

The U.S. and China are intimately linked--for better or worse. Can we make room for each other?

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NELSON CHING / SIPA FOR TIME

Liu Li works at a factory in Kaiping which produces clothing for the American company Timberland.

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Of course, to say that China is both an economic partner and a rival is no revelation. There has been so much talk, for so many years, about the potential of China's "opening up" to the West. Still, the extent of its rise somehow managed to sneak up on the U.S. "You have an emergent power and a dominant power," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning at the State Department. "The question is, Will we inevitably be enemies? No, it's not inevitable." The goal for Washington is to manage China's rise in ways that peacefully incorporate a new force into the global system. The goal for China is to protect itself from yet another false start on its quest of modernization. Neither nation will satisfy its objectives unless there is a clear-eyed sense of where China has been and where it is going. That is not simply a matter of understanding China's formal centers of power. What matters in China today is happening on the ground--in the lives of people like Liu Li.

What does it mean when Wal-Mart has become a major force for change in China, as a buyer and seller of goods but also as an employer? What does it mean when several Chinese city governments hire pollsters to gauge their effectiveness and a district leader conducts town-hall meetings and answers thousands of e-mails from the public? How should the West understand a society in which environmental protests are common and underground churches thriving--and yet in which information is tightly controlled and long prison sentences are handed out for those who transgress dimly defined laws on state secrets? Chinese officials bristle at American finger wagging and warn that how the U.S. treats China will affect Beijing's posture. For each side, finding--and maintaining--common ground will require understanding what's truly happening on the other side of the globe.

If China's rise looks scary to some Americans, from Beijing's perspective it seems very different. At last, think China's rulers, the world is being put into proper balance. After 500 years during which China fell asleep, it is once more taking its rightful place among the great powers. But most casual observers outside China don't understand that even as the nation gains respect, its people are haunted by a deep sense of past slights. China's long journey toward modernity began not because the dragon gently flexed its scaly muscles but because others prodded it with a sharp stick. When China began to open up to the world 150 years ago, it did so because gunships of the British Royal Navy, working in the service of opium smugglers, forced the imperial government to accept foreign trade. As China sees its history, the country was subjected to foreign humiliation for the next century, its territory invaded and dismembered, its people raped and massacred. Along with the foreign interventions came homegrown catastrophes: rebellions, revolutions, civil wars, famine and unspeakable cruelty. Luan, the Chinese word for chaos, is perhaps the single most important concept that the outside world needs to grasp about the new China, for the memory of the long years of chaos continues to have a profound impact on Chinese thinking today.

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