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The Big China Story Nobody's Really Covering

Walter Russell Mead

The Chinese Discovery of the World is one of major stories of our age: For the first time in China’s 2,500 years of history, millions of its citizens are venturing beyond their home towns and cities and out beyond the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom itself. According to the Wall Street Journal, economic troubles mean that fewer Chinese have been traveling abroad this year. Yet despite the tourist slowdown, a large number of Chinese citizens are still going abroad:

Spending on travel abroad fell to $19 billion in October, a chunky drop from the $25 billion spent in September, according to services trade data published Monday. The level is still above the $16 billion spent a year ago in October, but the year-over-year growth rate is ebbing to around 20% from more than 60% in the first half.

The least adventurous of these travelers go with tour companies of the “if today is Tuesday, this must be Belgium” variety. But more and more are coming for longer stays, getting an appreciation for cultures and civilizations very different from their own.

This matters. China has always been the most insular of the world’s great civilizations. At one end of the Silk Road, and cut off by geography from the other great centers of civilization, China never experienced the constant interplay between high civilizations and great empires that characterized, for example, both European and Middle Eastern history from ancient times. China never lived in the presence of the Other, sometimes admired, sometimes feared, in the formative way that German, Latin, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Indian civilizations did.

When the outside world burst into Chinese awareness in the 19th century, it came as a horror show. Weakened by isolation and introspection, China struggled for 150 years to adapt and to maintain its independence and dignity. Now, thanks to China’s economic development and the technological progress that allows human beings to travel the world, millions of Chinese people are immersing themselves in other cultures and civilizations.

This encounter will change China and it will change the world. Understanding how the new awareness of other countries and cultures is affecting the way people in China view their own history and way of life is critical for anybody who wants to see where the 21st century is headed. The great surge of Chinese tourists to sample the wider world’s restaurants, museums, cultural monuments, and natural wonders is one of the forces that is transforming the world as the first global civilization takes shape. Sadly, too many journalists and media outlets seem more interested in fact-checking Donald Trump than in getting their fingers on the pulse of world history. The press lavishes ink on relatively small bore events as one of the most consequential events in our time pass almost unnoticed.

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