The first time I visited China, in 1996, I went, like all traveling pilgrims, to Beijing's Tiananmen Square and gazed at the massive portrait of Mao Zedong at the entrance to the Forbidden City. More than anything, it was the sight that made me feel: I'm really here.
Current Chinese President Hu Jintao doesn't have anything like the cult of personality that surrounded Mao, and that is probably a good thing. Hu, presently on a state visit to the United States, is a different kind of leader: a technocrat, a hydraulic engineer by training, member of a post-revolutionary generation who worked his way up through the ranks of the Communist Party. He is not a dictator in the Mao mold, but Hu is very much the Man in Chinese politics. Hu has overseen the historic boom that followed the economic makeover put in motion by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Today, China has the world's second-largest economy, after the U.S. (though it has just one-10th the per capita GDP of the U.S.). That hyper-growth has put the Middle Kingdom on equal footing with the United States and cast it as the rising superpower of the 21st century.
One can't visit China and not be impressed or come away from China without feeling that you have seen the future. I have been to China a dozen times now, most recently last month when I visited Beijing and the Hong Kong SAR. In Beijing, I stayed in a hip boutique hotel called the Opposite House, in a fashion-forward district near the cluster of foreign embassies in the centeal city. I flew to the capital onboard the Chinese carrier Dragonair, deplaning in one of the world's biggest and newest passenger terminals, at Beijing Capital Airport. The city of 18 million - maybe more, who's counting? - was pancake flat when I first visited. Now, it is festooned with highrises and choked with cars. Modern shopping centers pulsate where traditional hutongs - back alleys - lined with courtyard houses once stood.
Progress has come at a cost: Chinese cities are among the most-polluted in the world. Cities like Beijing have bulldozed much of their heritage - even though such sites are, among other things, prized tourist attractions - in the rush to develop. Freedom of speech and religion are still tightly controlled. China's sway over Tibet is hugely unpopular around the world.
All this change comes courtesy of China's hybrid economy, a form of state capitalism that concentrates political clout among party leaders and gives the state power to own or otherwise control major home-grown corporations. China is expanding aggressively in both the economic and military spheres and it bargains hard to get what it wants - the U.S. agreement to let Chinese companies have access to more-sensitive American technology, announced today in Washington, is one result of China's leverage and hard bargaining.
Of course, Hu has granted concessions, too, to further at least the impression of international harmony between the two rival powers. The biggest deal in that regard is China's agreement to buy $19 billion worth of aircraft from the Boeing Co. Those airplanes will come in handy in helping China carry out a major expansion of its own airlines, which are struggling to keep up with the surge in air-passenger traffic as a newly empowered Chinese middle class discovers the joys of overseas tourism.
Count on this: As Sino-American relations evolve, travel and tourism will continue to play an important and emblematic role.