Conventional wisdom insists that nations ruled by communist parties are regimented, unimaginative failures. Yet nowhere on earth is changing so fast and on such a scale as in China, where market economics and rampant consumerism meet the remnants of Maoism, throwing up paradoxes with profound implications for its 1.3 billion people -- and for the rest of the world.
It is not clear, however, if even the leadership in its heavily guarded Beijing compound knows exactly what is going on in the 9.5 million km2 between the booming development zones of the coast and the huge deserts and mountains on the doorstep of Central Asia.
China is racing to meet its future, confident it will grow into a superpower within a couple of decades, with all that implies for the West and for its Asian neighbors. Yet it remains stunted under the authoritarian hand of a Communist Party for which the retention of power has become an end in itself.
It is the main motor of international expansion, but it contains an uncomfortable expanse of shady zones and, owing to its size and diversity, is very hard to control.
China's gleaming airports put Heathrow to shame. The size of construction projects have led to the joke about the crane being the national bird.
The tycoon class has expanded so substantially that the American business magazine Forbes produces an annual list of China's 100 richest. Car production is rising by millions of vehicles a year.
There are about 300 million mobile-phone users. Shopping malls are crammed with designer clothes, real and counterfeit. Top tickets for Real Madrid's forthcoming game against a Chinese team are priced at ?125 (US$200) each.
Figures issued last week showed that, despite a dip last spring because of the SARS epidemic, China's economic growth should still hit the 7 percent target for the year, with industrial production up by 16 percent in the first six months. Though there are doubts about the precision of official figures, this rate is even higher in the special economic development zones where big, modern factories ally automation with low-cost labour
Having started by making cheap goods, Chinese firms are moving on to more profitable ones as their country's membership of the WTO guarantees them access to world markets.
From toys to computer chips, just about everything seems to come from China these days. Despite SARS, exports in the first half of this year bounded by 34 percent to the equivalent of ?120 billion (US$192 billion). Foreign investment, bringing money, technology and expertise, rises by the year as Western and Japanese executives put the country at the top of their plans.
Made in China
A recent article by an American economist was headlined: "What happens when everything is made in China?"
That raises concern about foreign jobs being exported to China -- as in the decision by Waterford Wedgwood crystal to close British factories and shift production to China for lower costs. But, while international pressure on Beijing to revalue its currency upwards grows, economic expansion is making the mainland a major importer of raw materials, machinery and factory components. Its purchases of crude oil rose by a third in the first half of this year and it could be the salvation of the world steel industry.
On his drive from the airport, British Prime Minister Tony Blair would have seen Beijing engaged in a huge building program running up to its staging of the 2008 Olympics. In Shanghai, a new business district has gone up on marshland and gleaming blocks of flats line the eight-lane roads into the city. A German magnetic-levitation train whisks passengers in from Shanghai's new Pudong airport at 402kph, and a Japanese bullet train is likely to link the city to Beijing. Shenzhen, a pioneering economic development zone across the border from Hong Kong, has grown from a small town into a city of millions attracted by work in its fast-growing factories. Chongqing, capital of the biggest province, Sichuan, is being transformed from a shabby city notorious for its nasty climate into what aims to be a model of growth in a special zone containing 30 million people.