Until recently, the Chinese paradox that most puzzled Western audiences was how to understand a country that is both communist and hyper-capitalist. But that is hardly the only, or even the most striking, paradox of the modern Middle Kingdom. China is fast on its way to becoming a global superpower, even as it grapples with such enormous domestic challenges as supplying enough energy to keep its cities lit, absorbing millions of rural migrants into cities each year, reining in choking pollution, creating a social safety net, and attempting to lift millions out of poverty. Although China holds $1 trillion in U.S. debt, its per capita GDP is still roughly one-tenth that of the United States. Beijing is subsidizing China's fast-growing clean-tech export industry, even as the skies above the country's largest cities remain a hazy gray. Such seeming contradictions are dazzlingly confusing to outsiders -- and sometimes to China's own leaders.
Of course, Beijing is often also able to exploit these seeming incongruities.
China has long been adept at strategically playing the poor-country card. In the lead-up to the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, China's leaders deflected international pressure to accept greater emissions-reductions commitments in part by reminding the West how vast were the lifestyle differences between cappuccino-sipping New Yorkers and Burberry-wearing Londoners and those of subsistence farmers in China's western provinces, struggling to eke out meager wheat harvests from a parched and desolate landscape and whose families huddled in one-room homes lit by bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling-- in other words, how far much of China still has to go to catch up to the developed world, and how much energy that will take.
Meanwhile, even as China's $332 billion sovereign wealth fund is investing heavily abroad, Beijing continues to reap generous funding from such multinational organizations and NGOs as the Gates Foundation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As former U.S. ambassador on global HIV/AIDS Jack Chow wrote last year in Foreign Policy, China has been awarded nearly $1 billion in grants from the Global Fund -- making it the fourth-largest recipient of funds behind Ethiopia, India, and Tanzania.
At other times, the public face of China couldn't be more different from that of Ethiopia, India, and Tanzania. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Fair, China invested heavily in putting on a dazzling show. The Olympics cost an estimated $32 billion, including such iconic flourishes as the $400 million Bird's Nest Stadium's 42,000 tons of creatively twisted steel; all this was designed to wow both international audiences and domestic viewers. The impression patriotic organizers wanted to send was simple: We have arrived.