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Cover Story

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

As an economic superpower, what does China want on the global stage?

By Staff writer / November 5, 2011

A busy street scene in Shanghai, China. This is the cover story for the Nov. 7 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Reuters photo

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Beijing

It had been billed as a friendly exhibition game in basketball-crazy Beijing, between the Georgetown University Hoyas from Washington, D.C., and the Chinese Army's Bayi Rockets. But after some blatantly biased Chinese refereeing and unashamedly aggressive play by Bayi, it ended in a bench-clearing brawl, with Chinese fans in the Olympic stadium throwing chairs and bottles of water at the Americans.

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Some foreigners in the crowd that hot night in August were tempted to see the melee as nothing less than a metaphor for China's role in the world today: contempt for the rules and fair play, crowned by a resort to brute strength in pursuit of narrow self-interest.

You certainly don't have to look far for examples of China doing things its own blunt way no matter how much Western sensibilities are offended.

 IN PICTURES: China's landmarks

Just in recent months, Chinese state firms were caught negotiating arms deals with Col. Muammar Qaddafi's besieged regime in defiance of a United Nations embargo, Beijing leaned heavily on South Africa not to give the Dalai Lama the visa he needed to attend Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday party, and Chinese diplomats vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the deaths of nearly 3,000 civilians at the hands of Syrian troops.

And that's not to mention the Chinese government's habit at home of locking up lawyers, human rights activists, artists, even Nobel Peace Prize laureates for speaking their minds in ways that would be quite normal in most of the world.

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?

KUNG FU PANDA AND INNER PEACE

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.

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