Will China keep rising or succumb to its paranoia?

By David Ignatius
Monday, October 25, 2010


"Warmly welcome to Sino-Century," says an electronic display at the entrance to a private-equity fund here. That's the name of the firm, but it's also a good description of the rising China that could dominate the next 100 years as the United States did the previous century.

So an American visitor here inevitably wonders: What will this Sino-century be like, for China and the world? Can the country's opaque and autocratic political system cope with the economic forces it has unleashed, or is a time bomb ticking under the gaudy prosperity? And perhaps most worrying: Is this ascendant China heading toward a collision with an America that instinctively thinks of itself as the world's leading power?

After a weeklong visit here, I come away more perplexed by these questions than when I arrived. The new wealth of the coastal cities is stunning, and it justifies all the hype you've read. But China's political fragility is also evident; uncertainty about the future is clear among members of the elite who are investing abroad and obtaining foreign passports as hedges, at the same time they are harvesting fortunes in renminbi.

This new China is at once cocky and scared -- anxiously looking over its shoulder even as it races ahead. Chinese officials keep reminding you how poor the country is, while also boasting of its success. They're increasingly pushy with neighboring countries but insist that China doesn't want enemies.

The ambivalence is clear when Chinese talk about the United States. America is a favorite destination for students and tourists, and there's a deep affinity for our rollicking, acquisitive capitalist ways. But Victor Yuan, a Chinese pollster, says that America has topped the public's list of China's "most dangerous enemies" for nine of the past 10 years.

The contrast between a rising China and a flagging America is reinforced by the Shanghai Expo, a festival of national self-congratulation spread along the banks of the Huangpu River. The Chinese pavilion features a film that compresses into a few minutes the astounding story of China's economic growth over the past 30 years. The dazzling images are interwoven with a saying of Confucius -- "Follow your heart's desire without overstepping the line" -- and I suspect every Chinese viewer understands the message: Be careful; obey the party; don't blow a good thing.

Over at the modest American pavilion, the welcoming film features self-satisfied Americans botching simple phrases in Chinese. It's an unwittingly apt national self-portrait.

The blessings of China's prosperity, and its limits, come through in a series of conversations arranged by the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese Americans that organized the tour I joined. A Jamaican American expatriate raves about the system's "utilitarian" virtues but concedes it is also "soulless." A Chinese analyst fears that a crisis of legitimacy will produce external war or domestic strife. A Chinese student bemoans China's "lack of confidence" and worries that "people now only believe in money."

Perhaps to help fill the spiritual void, the government encourages national fervor. In Nanjing, there's a powerful memorial to the Japanese plunder of the city in 1937, with graphic exhibits that must outrage Chinese visitors. China's reservoir of anti-Japanese feeling burst open with riots in several cities after a recent naval confrontation.

The prospect of a Chinese-American showdown is the trickiest problem of all. Jianyou Guo, a graduate student at Beijing's Tsinghua University who has served in the military, argues that his country must develop "more powerful naval forces" to protect its interests. And the 19th-century American apostle of sea power, Alfred Thayer Mahan, is very popular with the Chinese military. But Beijing is more focused on future spheres of warfare -- in space and cyberspace.

Dingli Shen, a prominent military analyst at Fudan University here, argues that Mahan's theories are outmoded. "China needs to go to space," he says. With a laser from space, "any ship will be burned." Rather than competing with the United States to build ships or tanks, China should develop more advanced weapons "to make other command systems fail to work."

"You eat steak. We eat rice congee. How can we have the same opinions?" Jokes a Chinese stand-up comedian named Libo Zhou. Translation: Let us be Chinese.

A week previewing life in the Sino-century left me with this thought: Paradoxically, perhaps, America has a big stake in China's success. And though Chinese leaders don't like hearing it, that means pushing them to achieve the genuine stability that can come only with a more democratic, less paranoid political system. The alternative is the anarchic crack-up that nobody talks about, but everybody fears.


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