There was broken glass on the floor and garbage bags of shredded documents in the stairwells. On a sunny day in Beijing in 1999—dusty, of course, but still bright—Melinda Liu and I were being given a tour of the ravaged American Embassy in the Chinese capital. Our host was Ambassador Jim Sasser, who had just emerged from four days of siege in the compound. His captors? Protesters enraged by the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. It was, Sasser said, "anything goes. Rocks, Molotov cocktails, paint. The first night I tried to sleep, but all I could hear was the sound of rocks hitting the embassy."
It had been an odd kind of protest—but then, China is an odd kind of superpower. As Melinda reported at the time, "Beijing leaders quickly seized control of the demonstrations, allowing protesters to let off steam—but not actually to overrun U.S. installations. The government provided permits and buses for the Beijing demonstrators … Officials put up metal signs pointing out the 'procession route' in front of the embassy, and some policemen helpfully broke paving blocks into fist-sized chunks suitable for smashing windows."
And then it passed. The Chinese were willing to break some glass, but not sever ties; to express anger, but not cause permanent harm. The calibrated response to the Belgrade bombing suggests the kind of nation, and the kind of world power, China is becoming. It is big, prideful and knows that isolation is not an option.
This week's cover, edited by Nisid Hajari, takes you inside the culture and politics of the most populous country on the planet. The rise of China is already one of the most important sagas of our time, and next summer's Olympics in Beijing will bring the world's attention to a nation whose future will shape the rest of the globe well into the century.
In putting together this double issue, we have been very careful to avoid what journalists call the "Marco Polo problem," which arises when a news organization convinces itself that it has discovered a whole new world. We know that you already know a good deal about China, and so we have given you what we hope is an engaging package. It is anchored by a memoir from Melinda of her lifetime of familial ties and decades of journalistic experience in China. Melinda's autobiographical essay is accompanied by pieces from Fareed Zakaria and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (just back from China), and excerpts from the diaries George H.W. Bush kept during his time in Beijing in the Ford administration.
The country is, to say the very least, complex and contradictory. (Most countries, and most people, are, but China's complexities and contradictions matter more than most.) As Fareed writes, China has experienced more industrialization, urbanization and transformation in the past two decades than Europe did in two centuries.
Is the rise of a Chinese superpower an inevitable threat to the American hyperpower? "The Chinese can be tough," George Bush noted more than three decades ago. "They talk about principle—their principles. And when it is a matter of principle, it really means do it their way." Conflict of some kind is almost certainly unavoidable; it always is in the lives of nations. But arguments about trade or carbon emissions are much different than military or expansionist tensions, and the emergence of a dynamic national force does not necessarily mean existing nations must lose what might be called greatpower market share.
One thing is clear: 2008 will be the year China takes center stage for a global audience. In the debris of the American Embassy on that long-ago May afternoon, Jim Sasser was optimistic, predicting the Sino-U.S. relationship would now "move ahead even faster." The ensuing years have proved him right. Full speed ahead.