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Is there anything to fear from China?

A prominent slogan at a space center vows world conquest, but should that shouldn't be taken literally.

May 31, 2009|Simon Winchester | Simon Winchester is the author of, most recently, "The Man Who Loved China."

Because to people like Daisy and Frederick, and even to those generations that have a more vivid recollection of the events of 1989, today's China offers up sufficient freedom for most to live a remarkably content life. Materially, most urban and educated Chinese are in clover; and most Chinese I know seem perfectly willing to accept some curbs on their liberty -- not even setting a particularly high value on those liberties, as once they did. They read of what they believe are the consequences of unfettered freedoms in the West -- violence, corruption, drugs, anomie -- and count themselves lucky that their society suffers so few of them.

Cynics will say that they have sold their liberties for a mess of pottage. But others will say -- and Daisy and Frederick did say -- that the corollary to China's growing economic well-being and contentment is the soaring condition of the country when compared with the rest of the world. A keen sense of national pride -- something the Olympics did much to nurture -- has the Chinese people in its unyielding grip.

And that, students of realpolitik argue, could lead to what truly matters: that though China's power will not again need to be directed at its own people, might it instead -- for the first time in China's history -- be directed beyond its borders?

For what did the signboard in Jiuquan mean? Precisely what ambition did the slogan "We Shall Conquer the World" truly signify?

Local officials explained to me that it did not mean military conquest; China wasn't about to invade a neighbor, wasn't going to make threats or commence a program of assertion, expansion or hegemonistic swagger. The slogan merely suggested, and mildly, that China might offer the world another way -- an alternative to the cultural influence of McDonald's, Exxon Mobil and General Foods -- a reminder that Confucian ideals, for instance, matter too.

Others are less sure the intent is so innocent. There is talk of China acquiring an aircraft carrier. American sailors have recently felt the lash of Chinese anger after straying into contested waters north of the Philippines. Chinese anti-piracy patrols off Somalia have been a great success. There is a growing impression that the Chinese government is beginning to turn its face to the world beyond and look the rest of us in the eye.

As it may need to. China's immense and ever-growing economy demands raw materials from abroad, secure trade routes, alliances, partnerships and treaties.

Now, with an almost cast-iron guarantee of domestic tranquillity at home, how best can China, in a fickle and dangerous world, guarantee a lasting peace abroad? I suspect that China will work that out, without haste. And I imagine China will accomplish it, without fear. Just as it has so adroitly managed to achieve what will most probably be a lasting peace at home.

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