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

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"They don't have a clear and well-defined road map of how to achieve their goals long term other than to pursue development as they have done," says Michael Swaine, a China watcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Nor, frankly, do foreign affairs seem to figure very high on Chinese leaders' agendas. "International questions are an afterthought," says Francois Godement, founder of the Asia Centre, a Paris-based think tank. Instead, for a Communist Party whose overriding priority is to stay in power, domestic problems threatening social stability at home are infinitely more important.

"We have to change our unsustainable development model into a sustainable one" less dependent on high pollution, low-value exports, argues Mr. Wu, the foreign-ministry adviser, "and we have to narrow the disparity between rich and poor."

"China will be preoccupied for a long time with its domestic agenda," agrees Professor Zhu. "If you want to handle complex relationships, the starting point is to get yourself in the best possible shape. It's like Kung Fu Panda says – you need inner peace."

CHINA IS RICH BUT LONELY

As the big guns of the Democratic Republic of Congo's mining sector gathered last month at a smart lakeside hotel in the copper capital of Lubumbashi, some important new players were notably absent from the conference. Those who attended said they weren't surprised that no Chinese company had sent a delegate; the Chinese rarely mix with their mining colleagues, they explain.

But a visit to a local casino, heavily protected behind high, razor wire-topped walls, is evidence enough that the Chinese are indeed in town, and with money to spend: The clientele in the smoky, air-conditioned chill is almost exclusively Chinese – crowded at roulette tables and playing blackjack and poker, with mounds of chips in front of them.

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