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China poised on edge of new potential

Rebecca MacKinnon

By Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

January 5, 2000
Web posted at: 10:13 a.m. EST (1513 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

musings at the millennium

BEIJING (CNN) -- A thousand years ago, China was the most advanced civilization in the world.

The Song Dynasty emperors presided over a complex society, possessing paper, wooden printing presses, gunpowder, compasses, astronomical clocks and watertight shipbuilding techniques. Many of these things would remain unheard of in the West -- then just emerging from the Dark Ages -- for hundreds of years.

By the beginning of the 20th century, China had fallen so far behind the West -- technologically, scientifically, militarily, and in terms of social organization -- that the British, Portuguese and Japanese had colonized parts of China's territory, and an assortment of outside powers controlled most of China's ports. The last imperial dynasty collapsed in 1912 as the country became embroiled in warlord feuds, civil war, Japanese occupation, then more civil war, until Mao Tse-tung's communists took control in 1949.

What happened?

Most historians chalk it up to a combination of complacency, arrogance and lack of interest in the rest of the world. The Song emperors and their successors wanted to preserve the glory of China at its pinnacle. They came to dislike and discourage change. Innovators were no longer rewarded. The most respected members of society were officials who gained office by memorizing classical Confucian texts already centuries old.

In the 15th century, an admiral named Zheng He built a fleet and sailed as far as Africa. But less than a hundred years later, the Ming emperors, worried about challenges to their power, declared it a crime to go to sea in a multi-mast ship. While the Western world amassed great navies and improved upon technologies (many of which the Chinese had invented), China became cut off, largely unaware of how far it had fallen behind.

In Beijing last week, China celebrated nearly 5,000 years of Chinese civilization with a new structure called Century Monument. The prevailing view here is that China is finally on the upswing, and will again become a world superpower.

more musings

As every pundit tells us, success now depends on a nation's ability to harness and shape information technology. The inner circles of the Chinese government are debating heatedly over how to deal with the Internet, and whether the information it brings into China could threaten Communist Party rule.

Will China's leaders repeat the example of the Ming emperors? Or will they give the country's modern-day equivalents of Zheng He the freedom and support needed to sail through cyberspace and pioneer technological advances for their country and the world?

CNN Interactive: Analysis

CNN Interactive: ASIANOW

CNN Interactive: World

China Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation
People's Republic of China -- United Nations Mission
Virtual China
Beijing Software Industry Association
U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies -- China

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