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China's Rise: Inward-Looking Or Expansionist?

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China's Rise: Inward-Looking Or Expansionist?

China's Rise: Inward-Looking Or Expansionist?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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All this month we've been hearing about the many ways that China is growing and flexing its newfound power. This morning we consider whether the country will be a military threat as it rises on the world stage. NPR's Rob Gifford explores that question in this, our final story in the series.

ROB GIFFORD: If you're looking for lessons from history about the direction China might take in future, an ominous place to come is here on the outskirts of the capital, Beijing, a beautiful ancient stone bridge lined with carved stone lines known as Marco Polo Bridge. It's now a minor tourist attraction with a few people milling around taking photos, but it was here in July 1937 that a small skirmish between the Chinese and Japanese armies led to the full-scale invasion of a weakened China by a resurgent Japan.

(Soundbite of TV documentary)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

GIFFORD: A TV documentary narrated in serious tones plays inside the museum that stands near the bridge. It reminds visitors that as Japan modernized and industrialized, it sought to expand, and then invaded all of Asia. But suggest to ordinary Chinese people here that the pattern of modernization and industrialization in China could lead to something similar, and you'll be met with shocked faces.

Mr. ZHANG WUMING: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Zhang Wuming is 87 years old and remembers the Japanese occupation of China.

Mr. ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: But, Zhang says, China will never bully anyone when it becomes strong, and it will never become like Japan. His younger sister, Zhang Ailing, agrees, and can't resist a dig at Japan itself.

Ms. ZHANG AILING: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Don't worry about China, she too says, but make sure you write how many Chinese people the Japanese killed. That's why we need to be strong, she adds, because otherwise we'll be bullied and occupied again.

It can often seem that modern Chinese power is more aimed at erasing a painful past than at writing a dominant future. The problem is that with a growing military and increasingly assertive foreign and commercial policies, China doesn't always look that friendly from the outside. And there's one topic where the peace-loving Chinese seem worryingly militaristic.

Mr. ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: The people of Taiwan are Chinese people, says Zhang Wuming. And Taiwan is Chinese territory forever, says his sister.

Ms. ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: We want to reunify peacefully, she goes on, but we won't give up the right to use force. Not surprisingly, that causes concern across the Taiwan Straits among politicians, academics and heavy-metal rock bands alike.

(Soundbite of heavy metal music)

GIFFORD: Taiwan being a democracy, people here can say or sing what they like, and the band Shanling has even put its anger towards mainland China into a song supporting Taiwan's independence. And it's not just the head-bangers who are wary of China.

Ms. BI-KHIM HSIAO (Democratic Progressive Party): Many people in Taiwan see China as a threat to Taiwan.

GIFFORD: Bi-khim Hsiao is the spokeswoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. She says the threats from China are no longer just military.

Ms. BI-KHIM: Nowadays they are diversifying their tactics towards Taiwan to use economic leverage, such as massive procurement plans, such as using economic leverage to influence Taiwanese businesses and how they make their political donations. And even though our local law forbids Chinese ownership of Taiwan media, the Chinese are indirectly, through acquisition of other foreign companies and media outlets, to have an influence on public opinion in Taiwan.

GIFFORD: And that is not just happening in Taiwan. China's financial largesse is being felt across Asia as the Chinese use their formidable new wealth to win themselves friends. Many countries in the region are engaging with China, but as the giant neighbor builds up a blue-water navy and beefs up its commercial penetration of the developing world, most of those countries are continuing to strengthen their links with the United States as well, just in case.

As China spreads its influence abroad, though, there are plenty of problems still at home.

Ms. LIU SHUZHEN: (Foreign language speaking)

GIFFORD: Eighty-year-old Liu Shuzhen sits weeping as she explains what happened one night six years ago at her home in Shanghai.

Ms. LIU: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: In 2005, she says, dozens of men, including police and officials, smashed down her door and dragged her outside so they could demolish her house to make way for the Shanghai World Expo. Her daughter was detained trying to come to this interview. Her daughter's friend has come instead.

Ms. FAN GUIJUAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Fan Guijuan says she also had her house demolished to make way for the Expo and now she travels regularly to the capital, Beijing, to protest.

Amidst the dazzling skyscrapers of modern China, there are thousands upon thousands of dissatisfied, disenfranchised people like her, the flotsam and jetsam on China's rising tide of prosperity. Whenever there's a sensitive political meeting or visit, these protesters are detained at home or in a cheap hotel for anything up to 40 days, and watched around the clock by a large team of guards to prevent them from making trouble.

This year, China announced that its public security budget at home has surpassed the country's military budget for the first time. Asked about China's future, Fan Guijuan gives a wry smile.

Ms. FAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: You foreigners don't need to worry about an expansionist China abroad, she says. This government's got its hands full dealing with its own people.

They're the words of a woman pushed to the limit, but they represent a broader truth, that amidst all the extraordinary changes in China in recent years, there is one very big challenge left.

Professor WILLIAM KIRBY (Harvard University): I think the main challenge that China faces ahead will be in politics.

GIFFORD: William Kirby is professor of history at Harvard University.

Prof. KIRBY: No political party stays in power forever. And a great challenge for the leaders of the People's Republic is how does one begin this process of reform without losing control of it. And I fear right now, insofar as one can tell, you have a government that knows how to do many things extraordinarily well, but in this area it seems barren of ideas.

GIFFORD: But even if it manages to turn that barrenness into a fertile field of political ideas, it still isn't clear whether China will be a threat or not, or whether it will be able to continue its rise. What is clear though is that those questions are likely to be decided by what happens inside China itself. And what is also clear is that China's next 30 years cannot be like the last 30 - economically because the natural environment cannot sustain it, or politically because the human environment can probably not sustain it either.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.

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