Hong Kong's skyline casts a neon glow over Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, 1997. Jason Reed / Reuters


The rise of China, if it continues, may be the most important trend in the world for the next century. When historians one hundred years hence write about our time, they may well conclude that the most significant development was the emergence of a vigorous market economy-and army-in the most populous country of the world. This is particularly likely if many of the globe's leading historians and pundits a century from now do not have names like Smith but rather ones like Wu.

China is the fastest growing economy in the world, with what may be the fastest growing military budget. It has nuclear weapons, border disputes with most of its neighbors, and a rapidly improving army that may-within a decade or so-be able to resolve old quarrels in its own favor. The United States has possessed the world's largest economy for more than a century, but at present trajectories China may displace it in the first half of the next century and become the number one economy in the world.

The only group that is paying serious attention to China's long-term prospects is the business community. Chief executives regularly whirl through Beijing and Guanzhou, and they are almost inevitably dizzied by the ubiquitous construction sites, the glitzy discos, the miniskirted prostitutes. They gush about how China's current economic revolution is the most important business trend they have ever seen and how they want to be a part of it, but they ignore the tectonic strains that can be expected in the years ahead. Almost nothing is so destabilizing as the arrival of a new industrial and military power on the international scene; consider Japan's history in this century or Germany's in the decades leading up to World War I.

There is still a significant possibility that China will never manage an economic takeoff. All kinds of things can go wrong, and economic trajectories are almost impossible to predict. Four decades ago, for example, the two

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