For nearly three decades, Chinese peasants have left their villages for crowded dormitories and sweaty assembly lines, churning out goods for world markets. Now, China is turning the tables.
Here in the Australian Outback, Shane Padley toils in the scorching heat, 2,000 miles from his home, to build an extension to a liquefied natural gas plant that feeds China's ravenous hunger for energy.
At night, the 34-year-old carpenter sleeps in a tin dwelling known as a "donga," the size of a shipping container and divided into four rooms, each barely big enough for a bed. There are few other places for Padley to live in this boomtown.
Duct-taped to the wall is a snapshot of the blonde girlfriend he left behind and worries he may lose. But, he says, "I can make nearly double what I'd be making back home in the Sydney area."
The reason: China.
For years, China's booming economy touched daily life in the West most visibly through the "made-in-China" label on everything from clothes to computers. But now, economic growth is giving rise to something more that can't be measured just by widgets and gadgets — a shift in China's balance of power with the rest of the world.
China's reach now extends from the Australian desert through the Sahara to the Amazonian jungle — and it's those regions supplying goods for China, not just the other way around. China has stepped up its political and diplomatic presence, most notably in Africa, where it is funneling billions of dollars in aid. And it is increasingly shaping the lifestyle of people around the world, as the United States did before it, right down to the Mandarin-language courses being taught in schools from Argentina to Virginia.
China, like the United States, is also learning that global power cuts both ways. The backlash over tainted toothpaste and toxic pet food has been severe, as has the criticism over China's support for regimes such Sudan's.
To understand why China's influence is increasingly pushing past its borders, just do the math.
When 1.3 billion people want something, the world feels it. And when those people in ever increasing numbers are joining a swelling middle class eager for a richer lifestyle, the world feels it even more.
If China's growth continues, its consumer market will be the world's second largest by 2015. The Chinese already eat 32% of the world's rice, build with 47% of its cement and smoke one out of every three cigarettes.
China's desire for expensive hardwood to turn into top-quality floorboards for its luxury skyscrapers has penetrated deep into the Amazon jungle. For example, in the isolated community of Novo Progresso, or New Progress in Portuguese, one of the biggest sawmills was started by the mayor with financing from Chinese investors.
China accounts for 30% of the wood exported from logging operations in remote towns across Brazil's rain forest, where trucks carry the finished product hundreds of miles along muddy roads to river ports, said Luiz Carlos Tremonte, who heads an influential wood industry association. Many Chinese purchasers now travel to Brazil to clinch deals, and are almost always accompanied at business meetings by friends or relatives of Chinese descent who live there.
"Ten years ago no one knew about China in Brazil; then the demand just exploded and they're buying a lot," Tremonte said. "This wood is great for floors, and they love it there."