Much hangs on President Obama's visit to China. What message can he send to influence China's role on the international stage over the next few years?
First, he must acknowledge the success of China's well-coordinated and all-encompassing push to move 1.3 billion people in the direction of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (as the Chinese call their brand of communism). The country's economic growth over the past 30 years is unprecedented. China is now the world's third largest economy and trading nation. Over 200 million people have been pulled out of poverty. Basic literacy is almost universal and the country is building a world-class university system which fosters innovation in science and technology.
China's quasi-state capitalism and semi-democratic authoritarianism - sometimes dubbed the "Beijing Consensus" - has attracted world-wide attention. Many predict that the Chinese economy will soon overtake America's to become the largest in the world with significant implications for the global power balance. Evidence of this economic growth is everywhere. Four-lane highways fan out from China's main cities. Shanghai's skyline boasts exuberant buildings of nosebleed heights. And proud, newly middle class Beijingers walk the streets each morning with their pure-bred lap dogs in knit sweaters.
In both cities and villages, praise for the government's ability to raise the standard of living is a constant refrain. Villagers express gratitude for the new roads that connect them to the outside world and for the economic support they receive to refurbish the facades of their traditional homes. Young urban professionals appreciate being able to own their own homes and cars. And academics boast of government-supported expansion of university campuses and of newly-minted cultural exchange programs. Pride in the country's success is palpable. The future from the Chinese perspective looks bright and everyone is aspiring for "economic success."
And yet, amidst all this impressive development, something significant is still missing. China lacks a religious history, but Confucianism and Communism have played surrogate roles in the past and have provided a source of meaning for the Chinese people. Now there is a spiritual void. Since Deng Xiaoping legitimized materialism, declaring that "get rich is glorious," conspicuous consumption has replaced the traditions of Confucianism and the ideology of Communism and all efforts are now in the service of economic growth. Given its population, China is arguably the most materialistic country in the world.
Does China's "growth at all costs" logic provide enough meaning for the country to sustain itself in the future? Political corruption and social unrest are both on the rise, especially in the rural areas where land reclamation is an issue. Some believe the recent rise in the number of Falun Gong practitioners is a reaction to this spiritual vacuum.
President Obama has an opportunity to encourage a new role for China. He can inspire the country to use the wisdom of its unique history of Confucianism, Daoism and Communism to create a superpower of responsible stewardship rather than political, military, and economic intimidation. A responsible China could use its economic influence to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program and encourage good governance in Africa. With its economies of scale and abundant labor, China has the capacity to develop the largest electric car industry and market in the world. Lastly, by ending its expansionistic disputes with Japan and recognizing India and Japan as equal partners, a benevolent China could ensure a peaceful future for the Asia Pacific region.
In some ways, China has already begun to take on this role. Historically the country has been a proliferator of arms, but has recently signed or ratified a number of arms reduction treaties, and China currently has more peacekeeping personnel deployed than any other member of the U.N. Security Council. On the environmental front, the government is calling for renewable energy to provide 10 percent of the nation's power by 2010. These initiatives reflect Chinas growing desire to be perceived as a constructive global actor.
China is emerging as the next great power and, thus far, the rest of the world is simply waiting and wondering what the country will look like when she "grows up." The meeting between Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao provides a unique opportunity for the United States and China to forge a new partnership based on creating a new prototype for power. This shared purpose would contribute significantly to a more peaceful and sustainable world.