RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It was a century ago that the United States took over from Britain as the predominant world power. That transition was like one between brothers - the two countries remain close allies throughout and to this day. The current rise of China in relation to U.S. predominance presents a different challenge.
Over the next several weeks, MORNING EDITION will be looking at the rise of China and its impact on the world. In the first part of the series this morning, NPR's Rob Gifford takes us back to the 15th century. He reminds us that China's emergence today is really its reemergence as a world power.
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ROB GIFFORD: In a huge hangar in the Chinese city of Nanjing, nearly 200 miles inland up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, a workman is hacking away at a tree trunk. Behind him rises the skeleton of a massive wooden ship, 200 feet long and 45 feet wide.
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GIFFORD: This is the reconstruction of the flagship of a large Chinese fleet that sailed out in the early 15th century to explore and trade with peoples around the Indian Ocean - nearly 100 years before Columbus's three little boats crossed the Atlantic.
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GIFFORD: Tiny splinters fly as the workman planes the wood smooth. The treasure ship, as all the boats of China's first blue-water navy were known, was commanded by a eunuch admiral named Zheng He. And his voyages pose one of the great what-ifs of world history. Rather than just trading in Southeast Asia, India and as far as the east coast of Africa, what if Zheng He had colonized like the Europeans were about to?
Mr. ZHAO ZHIGANG: (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: The director of the project is a former official called Zhao Zhigang. Zhao says the peaceful nature of Zheng He's voyages show that, in stark contrast to the West's rise, China is not an expansionist culture.
Mr. ZHAO: (through translator) Chinese people are very moderate; we are not a missionary culture. Our navy is growing now, it's true, but we want to rise peacefully. We want to get to Western standards of living, but to do it all peacefully.
GIFFORD: Western historians say Chinese dynasties do have a tradition of expanding their continental borders - Tibet and the Muslim northwest being cases in point - but they say that there's no doubt Zheng He's approach shows a less missionary and less expansionist side to Chinese culture.
Professor WILLIAM KIRBY (Chinese History, Harvard University): It is not one of conquest; it is one of exploration and contact. But in no case does it result in a conquest.
GIFFORD: Professor of Chinese history at Harvard University William Kirby says, however, when you fast forward 600 years to today, modern China's motivations may be more like those of Western countries.
Mr. KIRBY: Whereas it does appear that the Zheng He voyages were motivated by desires different from those of Columbus or Magellan or of the great Western explorers, today, China's role in Africa seems to me to be very similar to that of other countries. I see China very much following, for better and possibly for worse, an American model of needing to secure energy sources and seeking to do so in a great variety of ways, wherever that energy can be found.
GIFFORD: The Chinese search for natural resources comes in the context of its growing military. But many Chinese people point out that it was the West that semi-colonized China in the 19th century, not the other way around. And they stress that China's peaceful culture has not changed since Admiral Zheng He's time.
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ALEX: Hi, this is Alex. As you know, TCFL, or Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, is becoming more and more popular around the world.
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GIFFORD: Aware of its need to project its soft power, the Chinese government has created ads on websites like this one and expanded its efforts to recruit teachers of Chinese and send them out around the world promoting the teaching of Mandarin.
Xiang Huanxin signed up to teach in Thailand. Like many young Chinese, she believes China will never threaten anyone.
Ms. XIANG HUANXIN (Teacher): China's rise is very different with Westerners' rise, hundreds years ago. For a country, if you want to rise, you can't force people to accept you. If people love you, they will accept you. That's what Chinese people think.
GIFFORD: Xiang says Chinese young people want what Western young people want -to get out and see the world.
Ms. XIANG: First, we just want to bring our culture outside for the people who are really interested in it. And we feel so proud that foreigners like Chinese culture and like to learn about Chinese knowledge. We never try to change the world. We just like to hug the world. It's peaceful. (Laughing) Don't worry.
GIFFORD: But if Chinese people just want to hug the world, it's clear the world doesn't always want to hug them back.
Unknown Man: (Yelling in Japanese)
GIFFORD: In Tokyo in May, the visiting Chinese prime minister was met by angry demonstrators, protesting at Chinese claims to islands that Japan also claims in the sea between the two countries. There is believed to be a major natural gas field under the seabed nearby.
Many in Japan, like Toshio Tamogami, the former chief of staff of the Japanese air force, are not buying China's claims that its rise will be peaceful.
Mr. TOSHIO TAMOGAMI (Former Chief of Staff, Japanese Air Force): (through translator) I don't believe it. They always say this, but they don't act that way. China wants resources, and it also wants the islands to help clear a way for its blue-water navy to get out to the Pacific Ocean. So, of course, Japan will never allow China to take the islands.
GIFFORD: Perhaps most difficult of all for China is that it is ruled by a Communist Party that continues to lock up activists and dissidents at home and continues to threaten Taiwan, which it claims as its own.
A peaceful rise is possible, says David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, but it won't be easy.
Mr. DAVID ZWEIG (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology): They themselves, I think, are doing an OK job. The risk, of course, is that they are making the world a little nervous and they don't have to even be bad to do that. Just the fact that a country the size of China is rising so fast is very destabilizing for the world, and the world has to come to terms with that. But China has to recognize that their rise is this highly destabilizing force, and so they have to figure out how to work their way into the system without adding to that disruption.
GIFFORD: Six hundred years ago, Zheng He's treasure ships went out and came back peacefully, partly because China didn't need anything from outside its own realm. Now, it does. How it deals with that search for energy and natural resources could be what decides whether China's rise will, in the end, be peaceful or not.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, you can hear about that search for energy in Central Asia in the second part of our series.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.