I've spilled plenty of ink on this topic, and its hard to find a constant theme. To note a few blog posts:
* "China Lags Behind US By 100 Years"
* "Greedy China"
* Scary China, Part 1
* Scary China, Part 2
I'm torn. Is China a rising power destined to challenge the global dominance of the United States? Or is it another Soviet Union that will flower and fade? You get a better sense of these things when you travel, and my more current impressions follow below.
First, traveling to China always makes me think the optimists have it wrong. Popular commentators like Thomas Friedman and Dr. Tom Barnett rave about China as the next big thing. These guys need to actually go to China -- and by that I mean they must travel outside Beijing and Shanghai. It's easy to go to the major coastal cities and think that China is ready to conquer the globe. But once you go into the interior, the country is ramshackle. The environmental conditions atrocious and the infrastructure barely functions. In many ways, the peasants of China's interior lead a worse life than similar social classes I've seen in poorer countries.
China's economic growth isn't scary to me. Competition is good. Energy supplies may be limited, but the growth has raised (and will continue to raise) the living standards of so many destitute people. And the Chinese have lots of ambition, even with scarce resources and limited means.
Homework by candle light in Dali.
Regarding political freedoms, I think Robert D. Kaplan is right when he says that [today's] Chinese Communist Party has done more to raise living standards than any other ruling elite in any society in the modern world. Had a dysfunctional democracy arisen out of Tiananmen Square in 1989, China would not be as rich as it is today. Human rights must be viewed in context, and the right to an education, to eat, to work, and to raise a family are far more important than the right to vote.
The one exception is freedom of the press, my biggest point of genuine concern. I can't help but notice that so many Chinese people wear their national resentment on their sleeve. Scratch the surface and many strongly resent the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and the West. This is encouraged in the education system and the media, where any introspection or self-criticism is all but prohibited.
Compare: Vietnam is arguably less free than China. But there's open talk among Vietnamese people of their dissatisfaction with the government. While the police presence on the street in Vietnam was more overbearing than China, the internet was not censored to the same extent as China, internet cafes operated illegally after hours, and in Saigon and Hanoi I heard people speak ill of their government. By contrast, any suggestion in China that things could be better was met with a strong defense of government policy or the way things were.
I wish the best for China, and hope it continues to grow. But I fear the lack of introspection and unquestioning nationalism -- rooted, in my experience, in the percieved success of other nations at the expense of China -- indicates to me big problems in the future.