An Emerging Superpower

In the last few years, the buzz about China's rise has become deafening. We have heard so much about China's unparalleled economic growth, its population explosion and its increasing presence on the world stage that it seems like a foregone conclusion that China will overtake the United States as the dominant economic superpower of the 21st century.

While these reports have often been received in the U.S. with a great deal of fear, and while many Americans wonder, especially in this economy, whether they'll lose their jobs overseas or how China's boom will affect democracy in the world, it is becoming more and more clear that our relationship with China will be critical to both of our nations' futures, and that it is much more complicated than it seems.

My addiction to China began 20 years ago. After graduating from law school in 1987, I began practicing business law in New York, but just months after I began working the market collapsed.

For months there was very little work to do in New York, leaving us bored and restless. I had studied Chinese in college and had a lot of Chinese friends, so I asked them to help me find a job teaching in China.

I was drawn to China because I saw that country as perhaps the next global power, so in 1988 I married my wife Lee and we moved to Beijing, where I began to teach law at the Chinese University of Politics and Law.

Looking back on it now, China was so different then, it is unbelievable. At the time, everyone rode bicycles -- Lee and I had them too -- and there were hardly any cars. Hardly any Chinese people had met an American, even in Beijing. People lived in tiny rooms, and there was little access to the Western world.

We spent a year there, and as you may have heard me say before, it was there that I was bitten by the journalism bug, when I began to work as a translator for CBS News and saw Tiananmen Square happen in front of my eyes. After that, I was never the same.

For the past 19 years I have been back to China only a few times, but every trip has shown me a new country. My producers and I had been talking for years about doing a documentary about China's influence around the world -- originally, the idea was that we could do it without even going to China, because China's footprint is everywhere.

Ultimately we chose to go to three countries where we could really see China's impact -- Angola, where the Chinese have invested heavily in oil production; Brazil, which the Chinese have come to depend on agriculturally; and Cambodia, where China is testing out its tactics of being a friendly neighbor to gain even more influence in the region.

In the end we couldn't resist -- we traveled to China itself, to see exactly what kind of change is happening there on the ground.

When we first got to Beijing, I was once again astounded by the changes. For one thing, the city was jammed with cars, and the pollution is striking. There has clearly been a huge change in the sheer numbers of people living there, and the middle class has exploded. Now there are foreigners everywhere, and so much exchange of ideas and culture between China and the West -- from newspapers and magazines to the ubiquitous presence of the Internet.

The biggest change, really, is the increase in their freedom. What's really surprising is to see that the Chinese people are now achieving through capitalism what Mao thought he would do through communism -- making their country a real force to be reckoned with.

Right now we are at a unique moment in history; we have a chance to watch the world changing. In the 19th century Britain was the driving power, the 20th century saw the United States took that title, and now in the 21st century the world watches as China grows and grows.

Now more than ever, we need to recognize the importance and complexity of our relationship with China. Will it be positive? Negative? Somewhere in between? Our decisions over the next decade or so will determine that.

The fact is that our global borders have shrunk, and we are no longer as separated from other nations as we once were. In many ways we are largely dependent on China, and it is dependent on us as well.

I look forward to sharing with you the stories we discovered around the world as we worked on this documentary. So many people have heard so much about China's rise, but it is not a black-and-white issue. China is not simply our enemy, and not simply our ally. This will be the most important relationship of the 21st century, and I hope you will tune in to "China Inside Out" to see more.