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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China front and center as 21st century unfolds

February 13, 2012

Tom Watkins guest column:

Feb. 12, 2012  |  

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra's recent shameful insensitive, xenophobic, political cheap-shot advertisement aimed at U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, has forced China into the spotlight.

On Valentine's Day, Chinese Vice President Xi (pronounced "shee") Jinping will be having a White House dinner. Xi is the likely next (s)elected president of China. He is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in a once-a-decade leadership change this year.

Feb. 22 marks the 40th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. The world has never been the same.

A great fourth-grade teacher sparked my lifelong interest in China. In 1989, I stood with the students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as they called for an end to corruption and asked me to "describe democracy, describe freedom."

A few weeks later, the Chinese People's Army turned on its people, crushing those dreams.

I have spent a good part of my early life curious about China and my professional life attempting to build cultural, economic and educational bridges with China.

China has come of age. The iconic British magazine The Economist (, with its focus on world news, politics, economics, business and finance, is devoting a weekly special section specifically on China.

Sure, China has been on steroids since Deng Xiaoping threw opens its doors to the world over 30 years ago, moving 300 million to 400 million of its people from abject poverty to the Chinese middle class. I am reminded that Napoleon warned us "To let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world."

China has been awake and shaking the globe for some time now, and the world has taken notice.

Yet, to secure your own section in the world leading magazine The Economist sends a signal. China is on the world stage to stay.

As The Economist puts it, "It is the first time since we began our detailed coverage of the United States in 1942 that we have singled out a county this way. The principal reason is that China is now an economic superpower and is fast becoming a military force capable of unsettling America."

China has much to be proud of and to be repulsed by since former Nixon brilliantly realized over 40 years ago what happens in China does not stay in China. Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and secretary of state, began the normalization process with a country with a system of government alien to ours that is home to one-fifth of all humanity.

China's history, like our own, has seen the good, bad and ugly. With the world's second-largest economy, a rising middle class and military, China will be a force, on multiple levels, to be reckoned with.

Moving forward, all major world events will intersect at the corner of Washington, D.C., and Beijing. How our respective leaders manage these events will not only impact the people of America and China, but all of humanity.

In 2000, National Geographic Magazine said Americans are far too ignorant of all things Asia. Sorry to say, not enough has changed in the preceding years.

China and its communist, one-party-rule leaders have guided China's economic growth in a way that has allowed them to remain in power. As Deng Xiaoping realized after the disastrous decades of Mao, without improving the economic lot of the average Chinese citizen, the Communist Party would be history.

China has many internal problems to manage while it stretches its new-found muscle around the globe. Ancient Chinese history reminds us that Chinese emperors cannot rule without a "Mandate from Heaven," or the will of the people.

While on the surface and simple looking at stunning economic data China is prospering.

Yet, a peek at its underbelly and China's internal problems are many.

There are reported nearly 180,000 "mass incidents" in 2010 in towns and villages across this vast nation where local villagers are fed up with corruption, pollution and "stealing" of their land without fair compensation.

Ethnic and religious unrest in China's minority communities especially Tibetan self-immolations and Uyghurs, a Muslim people living in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far northwestern China. Both minorities believe the Chinese are undertaking a cultural genocide against them.

There are massive crackdowns by the Chinese Communists in these two communities that the Chinese brand as "spitists" attempting to cause chaos and disrupt China's "harmonious rise.

China has a ballooning aging population and needs to get much richer before it gets much older to deal with this demographic fact.

The world economy, along with the United States, China has become as tangled as a bowl of Chinese noodles. We have climbed into the same bed even while we may have different world dreams. We are both partners and competitors for both soft and hard power around the globe.

Having crisscrossed China and interacted with many Chinese from high government officials to ordinary citizens for nearly a quarter of a century, I find the Chinese people to share the hopes and dreams of average Americans; to live in peace, raise a family, have economic security and enjoy life.

We need to understand we live in a big world and we must both accommodate and at times challenge a rising China as President Barack Obama is doing with shifting our military might to the Pacific.

Clearly, China will present both challenges and opportunities as the 21st century continues to unfold. Finding the right balance to protect our national interests, ideas and ideals around the globe and here at home will be a major challenge for our leaders going forward.

So, if nothing else, subscribe to The Economist or pick up a copy from time to time to learn about how this sleeping China has awoken and how it will continue to shake the world moving forward.

We now know, what happens in China will not stay in China. An unstable China will create an unstable world.

Tom Watkins is a U.S./Chinese business and educational consultant. He served as Michigan's state superintendent of schools, 2001-2005; and president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, Fla., 1996-2001. He can be reached at
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