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China wants to pass U.S. as economic power

On a train from Xi'an to Beijing, traveling 180 miles an hour as it cuts through air so polluted you can't see the tops of city skyscrapers, a female attendant mops the speeding car's floors between stops to keep the compartment tidy. Clean floors, dirty air. This is China in the 21st century.

Arriving in the People's Republic three weeks ago, I expected to learn a lot - and I did. Perhaps most important, I learned that President Obama is right to try to shift America's foreign policy focus to Asia. Unfortunately, our country's preoccupation with the Middle East since the 9/11 attacks won't allow us to put that perpetually roiling situation into perspective and move on.

Two months prior to my nine-day visit, sponsored by the Hong Kong-based China U.S. Exchange Foundation, a group of Chinese journalists visiting The Inquirer while making a similar tour of the United States expressed disappointment in Americans' lack of knowledge about their country. Now I understand what they meant.

Despite having watched the grandeur of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing on TV, many older Americans, if they think of China at all, remember it as the uniformly dressed nation of Mao sycophants clutching copies of his Little Red Book of directives and exhortations as they march to assigned jobs in the fields and factories.

That's not the new China. I visited Shanghai, Xi'an, and Beijing with three other U.S. journalists - from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post. We met with erudite government officials, entrepreneurs, academics, students, and, on a side trip, even a few farmers, all of whom expressed their fervent belief that China's participation in the world market - not military prowess - is crucial to its success.

Their message brought back memories of an interview I did years ago with A.G. Gaston, who in the early 20th century became Alabama's first black millionaire. Gaston's autobiography was titled Green Power. That's what the Chinese want. They aspire to replace America, but not as the world's policeman. They want the most powerful economy in the world, but realistically acknowledge that will take years. China's 1.3 billion people include almost as many poor, 200 million, as the entire U.S. population.

But the Chinese are confident. Take venture capitalist Eric X. Li (capitalism is no longer a bad word in communist China), founder and managing director of Chingwei Capital. We met Li in Shanghai. He believes American-style democracy is killing the United States. In contrast, said Li, a country such as China that puts the good of the "collective" above the individual flourishes. He said China's meritocracy works better than America's because its public schools are better. In America, he contended, only the rich can afford the type of education needed to excel.

Of course, today's China has rich people, too, including Li, whose views about the collective haven't stopped him from individually accumulating wealth as CEO of a successful investment firm. He epitomizes the new China, which is guided not by Mao's classless society ethos, but by Deng Xiaoping's 1979 credo: "Let some people get rich first, and gradually all the people will get rich together."

How are the Chinese getting rich? With companies such as Huawei Technologies in the Pudong area of Shanghai, which is producing telecommunications devices for consumers in 140 countries - but not in the United States, which has accused Huawei of manufacturing products designed to allow unauthorized access by the Chinese government, a charge the company denies.

The Huawei complex, an architectural marvel designed to house 8,000 workers, is impressive. Even more impressive, however, is the Chinese version of Silicon Valley being built in Shaanxi Province, home of Xi'an, the very modern city where in 1974 archaeologists discovered an army of life-size terra-cotta soldiers entombed by Qinshihuang, China's first emperor, around 209 B.C. Just miles from the mausoleum museum where the clay soldiers stand guard, such companies as Oracle, Bosch, Siemens, Fujitsu, and PepsiCo are busy trying to create their next big thing.

Taking a brief respite after touring the beehive known as the Xi'an Hi-Tech Industries Development Zone, our group motored in a van about 75 miles up Mount Huashan to the tiny village of Da Ping, population 100. Its mostly elderly residents (only one baby lives there) said most of the young people have left for jobs in the city. They know their village is dying, but they have no desire to leave. Said one man, through an interpreter: "We like our clean air."

Our group appreciated the clean mountain air, too, if not the communal latrine, and we appreciated it even more after leaving Xi'an for Beijing, where the air particulate count one day exceeded 400 (anything above 100 is considered unhealthy). It would have been nice to see Tiananmen Square when it and Beijing's skyscrapers weren't obscured by low-hanging smog. Only on our last day in Beijing did the wind blow the pollution away and allow the sun to properly illuminate the structures.

In Beijing, we met with the highest-ranking official on our itinerary, Fu Ying, China's vice minister of foreign affairs, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom, who repeated the message we kept hearing from other Chinese - that they don't see themselves as either America's enemy or competitor, but as a trade partner that wants a closer relationship. Fu asked not to be quoted, but much of what she said mirrored remarks in her book, When I Was There, a compilation of speeches.

Particularly noteworthy are comments she made in London after the 2008 Olympics: "China's three decades of reform and opening up is a process of opening up to and learning from the West and other countries. . . . The market economy is deepening and concepts like democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are taking root. . . . But we don't simply copy and paste. China learns useful things according to its own needs and national conditions."

I left China agreeing with the Chinese that Americans don't know enough about what is happening in that country and why we should be paying more attention to it. But I also expressed to the Chinese I spoke with that they need to do more to get their message across. Even tiny Jamaica has a budget to promote itself directly to Americans. China, too, can make a direct appeal to Americans, rather than leaving it to visiting politicians and journalists to convey its desire for a closer relationship with the United States. To be understood, China must, to use Fu's words, "open up" even more.

Harold Jackson is editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board.