– As I headed to China’s capital city, the headlines were testament to the tests the country faces internally — and presents internationally — as it tries to build on its remarkable economic, diplomatic and military rise.

“I.M.F. Designates China’s Renminbi Global Currency,” read the Dec. 1 New York Times headline, with the subheadline “Beijing’s Rising Clout” amplifying China’s economic emergence. But right next to that front-page story was a picture of a Beijing bicyclist obscured by smog. The headline “Critical Conditions” suggested the downside of China’s rise.

After our flight landed, a blustery cold front freed the city from the latest “airpocalypse.” (Well, at least until week’s end, when a first-ever air pollution “Red Alert” closed schools and some offending factories.) Despite the smog in Beijing, the clouds covering Guiyang and the rain shrouding Shanghai, journalists found some clarity after dozens of discussions during a 10-day reporting trip that was sponsored by the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation.

It’s clear, for instance, that Chinese leaders are well aware that the threats to its international standing aren’t just geopolitical, but domestic. The issues include corruption and air quality, which might have motivated China to ink a relatively aggressive agreement at the recent U.N. climate change conference in Paris.

Internationally, it’s equally apparent, and important, that Chinese leaders are determined to establish what’s often termed a new model of major power relations in order to avoid the historical pattern of armed conflict between established and rising powers.

The Obama administration is aware of this dynamic, too, and thus pronounced a “pivot” (rebranded as a “rebalancing”) toward Asia.

Most Chinese see the pivot “as the United States worried about China’s rise,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. While Haenle generally agreed with the move, the messaging made the Chinese uneasy, he said. “The way we rolled it out in kind of a highhanded fashion I think led to the reactions you saw in China. … We should have just done it.”

The proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, which does not include China, also was viewed by some through a political prism. “President Obama has positioned this deal as a geopolitical play vis-à-vis China, which I think is unfortunate because they have a good economic case to make,” said Eric X. Li, founder and managing director of Chengwei Capital in Shanghai.

The challenges to the bilateral relationship go well beyond marketing. Maritime disputes over the South China Sea have chilled China-U.S. ties, and there’s tension between China and neighboring nations regarding territorial issues, too. There’s also the long-simmering U.S.-China cybersecurity spat. But a distinctly different Chinese interpretation of these issues was apparent in meetings with military, diplomatic and political officials throughout the trip. (Most were off-the-record or on-background interviews, common in a country where most seem reticent to speak for, and most notably against, the central government).

On another regional threat, North Korea, there was also a different interpretation than is often assumed in Washington. Kim Jong Un seems just as unpredictable and uncontrollable to his ostensible Chinese allies as he is to the rest of the world.

“China feels it has limited leverage on North Korea. The more China imposes coercive measures on North Korea, it looks like the tougher North Korea becomes,” said Tong Zhao, a resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center. “China believes that the best way to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons and to continue to reform its economy and open up to the international community is maintaining the stable and generally good positive North Korean-China relationships.”

China’s rise isn’t just a regional dynamic, however. Most notably, the country has a huge stake a continent away: in Africa. China’s first overseas military base will be in Djibouti. And after attending the opening of the Paris climate conference, President Xi Jinping jetted to Johannesburg for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, where he announced a $60 billion package of financial assistance and loans. But unlike with U.S. aid, there are fewer if any human-rights strings attached, as evidenced by the smiling picture of Xi shaking hands with Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president whose harsh rule has been sharply criticized by other governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International.

NGOs pressing for freedom of information note a more restrictive environment even as China has opened up to the world. Just this month, Reporters Without Borders called the country the world’s leading “enemy of the Internet.” And the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that one-fourth of the world’s jailed journalists are in China, making it “the world’s worst offender.”

Still, Li believes, China’s dynamism is undeterred. “My answer to people who say that somehow China doesn’t have innovation or creativity, I show them this,” he said, pointing to modern Chinese art. Politically, Li added, China’s reforms in the last 40 years “have been more daring than any other country in the modern era have attempted” (the latest being China relaxing its “one-child” policy). And economically, “China is going through the largest-scale industrialization man had ever known.”

The scores of skyscrapers throughout the country are testament to this last fact. But so is the smog. It’s a rising concern among the Chinese and is hurting the nation’s ability to recruit “senior talent,” according to recent polling.

It was also on the mind of at least one sharp student at the Guizhou Electrical Vocational and Technical College, which trains young Chinese to work on the power grid. At the end of a meeting with earnest academics, the student was asked what power source he most wanted to work on. “Solar,” he said, somewhat solemnly, explaining that it’s cleaner.

When asked his first name he said, “Edison.” (His family name is Ruan).

China will need more Edisons — innovating, if not inventing, solutions on air quality, diplomacy, and political and economic reform — as it continues its striking rise.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.