The West has always been captivated by China, from its centuries as a distant, exotic civilization to its decades as the People's Republic under the Communists. Now the vast society is more complicated and intriguing than ever.
Material wealth and American franchises rule the streets of Beijing, while horse-cart farm life in faraway provinces continues as in the days of the great dynasties.
In the past 30 years, much of China has lived out reforms that made it more capitalist and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Today it has the world's second-largest economy, and it underwrites $1.2 trillion of U.S. debt. But it also suffers the ill effects of rapid growth and industrialization -- air pollution, traffic congestion and easy access to things that can kill you, like cigarettes.
During a two-week study tour sponsored by the East-West Center in Honolulu and the Better Hong Kong Foundation, I was one of five American journalists who traveled through China in late November and early December. We met government ministers and common citizens, military officers and people trying to create local business. Although our itinerary was mapped out in advance, with the Chinese government's cooperation (and the daily presence of an "information" aide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), we saw a land of contrasts, not only while moving from province to province but also within the same city or village.
Beijing, for instance, has a dazzling downtown, where bright city lights, albeit through the glow of smog, beckon shoppers to luxury merchants -- Rolex, Gucci, Tiffany -- while on the fringes of the capital, migrants from the countryside live with their families in one-room, concrete-block dwellings while seeking work in the city.
In Yunnan province, one of the poorest in the country, farmers water their crops with buckets dangling from a yoke while the mountain ridges around them are topped by dozens of wind towers trying to capture renewable energy.
Hong Kong, with the density of an Asian Manhattan and its history as a former British colony, poses perhaps the greatest paradox by living the "one country, two systems" principle -- a Chinese territory with political parties, democratic elections and free enterprise.
The photos on this page are but a few windows on today's China, a place and a people being tested not only by fast economic growth and modernization but also by demands for freedom of information, freedom of expression and other rights. Does the new government of party chief Xi Jinping dare deliver one without the other, particularly at a time of Internet communication, ease of travel and knowledge that the world is watching?
For the sake of the Chinese, let's hope the question answers itself.
Tom Waseleski is the Post-Gazette editorial page editor (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1422). First Published January 27, 2013 5:00 AM