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The rise of an economic superpower: What does China want?

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China's economic rise and its newly amplified voice on the international stage unnerve people and governments across the globe, despite Beijing's best efforts to assuage their fears. Bookstore shelves in America and Europe offer titles such as "Death by China" and "When China Rules the World." Edward Friedman, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes some other observers when he goes so far as to call China's rise "the greatest challenge to freedom in the world since World War I" aimed at "making the world safe for authoritarianism." But does China really want to overturn the US-led post-World War II international order – the very system that has allowed the country to flourish so remarkably? And if the men at the top of the Chinese Communist Party are indeed so minded, could they, or those who come after them, ever succeed?


Ordinary Chinese – from unschooled peasant farmers tending rural rice paddies to get-ahead young computer engineers in Beijing – have been brought up to see their country as benign, and genuinely don't understand how foreigners can see China as a threat. China is the most populous country and the second-biggest economy in the world, they know, but they point out that the average person here makes only 1/10th of what the average American makes. And most of the country is decidedly third-world.

China is modernizing its military but still finds it a strain to keep a destroyer, a frigate, and a supply ship on international antipirate duty in the Gulf of Aden. Compared with the ability of the United States to fight two major wars and keep six full-scale fleets afloat at the same time, China's military power – even with the world's largest standing army – is puny.

In general terms, most China watchers in the West agree. What China wants is pretty straightforward and unexceptionable: to be prosperous, secure, and respected.

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