This week’s TIME cover story, which is illustrated by the artist-activist Ai Weiwei, examines China’s place in the world as it forges ahead into a new decade of leadership under recently-installed President Xi Jinping. For years, the narrative surrounding the world’s most populous country has been one of ascension, of “rise.” Now, as Xi meets U.S. President Obama for a two-day conclave in California on June 7, China has arrived and is in many regards an equal partner to the U.S., the existing global hegemon. TIME’s Hannah Beech writes:
For decades, China’s outlook on how East met West was simple: a proud, ancient civilization was brought to its knees by foreign gunboats, British opium and Japanese wartime oppression. Whenever the People’s Republic dealt with the world, it did so with a chip on its shoulder, and Xi’s forerunners larded their speeches with accusatory references to “a century of humiliation” at foreign hands. The West was regarded as arrogant overlord, democratic foe and subversive instigator rolled into one. That sense of historic injustice festered even as China’s growing economic power might have been expected to sweep away such insecurities. But the ascension of President Xi–he of the patriotic swagger, political pedigree and photogenic PLA-folksinger wife–heralds a new era of China’s interaction with the international community. Instead of simply positioning China as a vanquished, aggrieved inferior, Xi and his China Dream envision a mighty nation reclaiming its rightful place in the world, not just economically but politically and culturally too.
The consequences of China reclaiming its “rightful place” are far-reaching—a world driven by a Chinese consumer class, rather than an American one, would be already a very different place. But Beech charts the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower: its toxic environment, its awkward relations with wary neighbors, the iron-bound determination of Xi’s Communist Party to keep a stranglehold on power despite the growing frustrations of its restive population. China views itself as the Middle Kingdom, imbued with the mandate of 5,000 years of glorious history. But the rest of the world still sees a “foreign policy laggard,” preoccupied more by its insecurities than its strengths.
Click here to read Hannah Beech’s full story on China’s future, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.
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