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posted: 2/21/2012 12:01 AM

Pay close attention to China

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China, for better or worse, is a serious country. The United States had better start acting like one.

I got a glimpse of the future last week in the vast ballroom of a Washington hotel where hundreds of august dignitaries -- and some journalists as well -- gathered at a luncheon in honor of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to become China's top leader after a yearlong transition.

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Xi's status is such that he was introduced by no less than Henry Kissinger, who spoke, not for the first time, of the Nixon-to-China breakthrough four decades ago. It is useful to remember that the country we now think of as a trillion-dollar creditor and the manufacturer of iPads was once a Maoist bastion, hermetically sealed against the capitalist influences of the Western world.

Let me interject that this column will include quite a few Chinese names, which can be hard for English-speaking readers to follow. Please make the effort. Being an informed citizen of the world is increasingly going to require some level of comfort with Chinese nomenclature.

Xi's father -- Xi Zhongxun, once one of Mao Zedong's lieutenants -- fell out of favor and was persecuted during much of that era. Xi Jinping is part of a remarkable generation that survived the apocalypse of the Cultural Revolution; he spent long, hard years as a teenager living in a cave in the poor, remote Shaanxi province.

Xi fared better than the man considered his chief rival for power and influence in China -- Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief for the Chongqing metropolitan area, which is home to nearly 30 million people. Bo's father, Bo Yibo, was one of Mao's most trusted associates before being purged in the Cultural Revolution. The whole family was sent to a prison for five years, then to a labor camp for another five. Bo Xilai's mother either committed suicide or was beaten to death.

I recount this history because it helps me understand why the men -- and a few women -- now running China are the way they are: impatient to make up for lost time, pathologically wary of the slightest instability, tough, resourceful, adaptable, coldly unsentimental and, as Kissinger generalized in his introduction, convinced "that every solution is the beginning of a new set of problems."

The speech Xi delivered at the luncheon was fairly stilted and anodyne, as one might have expected. He's not president yet, and clearly he was intent on not making headline news. China wants a "cooperative partnership" with the United States, he said, adding that his meetings with President Obama and Vice President Biden were "fruitful."

There was an overall message, however. Xi referred to the U.S.-China relationship as "an unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead." He was pointing out the obvious: For decades to come, the United States and China will be the world's two biggest economic powers. We're stuck with each other, like it or not.

China is a one-party state, but that does not mean there is no debate about the country's direction. Xi is considered likely to keep the nation on its current path of free-market economic growth. His political adversary Bo Xilai advocates a more robust safety net to care for the millions who are being left out of the Chinese economic miracle.

There are also internal disagreements about how aggressive China should be in asserting its military influence throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. Addressing the environmental cost of the country's rapid development will be an urgent task for the incoming leadership. China's record on human rights and political openness is still abysmal.

These are serious questions -- but Chinese leaders at least are grappling with them in a serious manner. But here in the United States?

"We're having the most frivolous of conversations -- in an election year!" This assessment came from Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who recently ended his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, and who attended the lunch for Xi.

We hear a lot of China-bashing on the campaign trail. Yes, there's plenty to criticize -- currency manipulation, intellectual piracy, the appalling veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the ouster of the murderous Assad regime in Syria. What we're not hearing is a serious debate about farsighted reforms that are needed to keep the United States from falling behind.

If we are to thrive in a changing world, singing "America the Beautiful" isn't enough.

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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