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If you ever feel mesmerized by the usual stuff you hear about China--20% of the world's population, gazillions of brainy engineers, serried ranks of soldiers, 10% economic growth from now until the crack of doom--remember this: China is still a poor country (GDP per head in 2005 was $1,700, compared with $42,000 in the U.S.) whose leaders face so many problems that it is reasonable to wonder how they ever sleep. The country's urban labor market recently exceeded by 20% the number of new jobs created. Its pension system is nonexistent. China is an environmental dystopia, its cities' air foul beyond imagination and its clean water scarce. Corruption is endemic and growing. Protests and riots by rural workers are measured in the tens of thousands each year. The most immediate priority for China's leadership is less how to project itself internationally than how to maintain stability in a society that is going through the sort of social and economic change that, in the past, has led to chaos and violence.
And yet for all their internal challenges, the Chinese seem to want their nation to be a bigger player in the world. In a 2006 poll conducted jointly by the the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Asia Society, 87% of Chinese respondents thought their country should take a greater role in world affairs. Most Chinese, the survey found, believed China's global influence would match that of the U.S. within a decade. The most striking aspect of President Hu Jintao's leadership has been China's remarkable success in advancing its interests abroad despite turmoil at home.
Surprisingly for those who thought they knew his type, Hu has placed himself at the forefront of China's new assertiveness. Hu, 64, has never studied outside China and is steeped in the ways of the Communist Party. He became a party member as a university student in the early 1960s and headed the Communist Youth League in the poor western province of Gansu before becoming provincial party chief in Guizhou and later Tibet. Despite a public stiffness in front of foreigners, Hu has been a vigorous ambassador for China: the pattern was set in 2004, when Hu spent two weeks in South America--more time than George W. Bush had spent on the continent in four years--and pledged billions of dollars in investments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Cuba. While Wen Jiabao, China's Premier, was visiting 15 countries last year, Hu spent time in the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya. In a three-week period toward the end of 2006, he played host to leaders from 48 African countries in Beijing, went to Vietnam for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, slipped over to Laos for a day and then popped off for a six-day tour of India and Pakistan. For someone whose comfort zone is supposed to be domestic affairs, that's quite a schedule. "Look at Africa, look at Central America, look at parts of Asia," says Eberhard Sandschneider, a China scholar who is head of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "They are playing a global game now."