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In one decade, China reshapes the world

China's bold rise this decade took many forms. The Beijing Olympics. The billions of dollars loaned to the U.S. The rip-roaring economic growth.
Decades End Chinas Rise
A woman rinsing rice in a pot as others sort garbage at a trash recycling center in Beijing, China. For China, this decade was a time when the massive nation began to reshape the world in both basic and big ways.Greg Baker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

China's bold rise this decade took many forms. The Beijing Olympics. The billions of dollars loaned to the U.S. The rip-roaring economic growth.

And then there were the missing manhole covers.

Hundreds of them were stolen from streets around the world. The first reports came from Taiwan in 2003 and later London, where it was dubbed the "Great Drain Robbery." Chicago had to replace at least 150 manhole lids or grates in 2005.

Thieves were selling them to shady scrap metal dealers, who were cashing in on China's ravenous demand for steel for skyscrapers in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities. China's construction boom was literally being felt on the streets around the world.

For China, that's what made this decade different from the others. It was a time when the massive nation began to reshape the world in both basic and big ways. After spending much of the '80s and '90s with their heads down, retooling their shattered economy, the Chinese started peering beyond the horizon and striding out far beyond their borders.

Investment in Africa
China became one of the biggest investors in Africa. The Chinese craving for tofu caused Brazilian farmers to chop down more acres of trees in the Amazon for soybean fields. Their soaring demand for iron ore caused a housing bubble in the rugged Australian Outback, where men flocked to work in mines. Their factories, powered by cheap labor, sucked away millions of jobs, hollowing out industrial zones in the U.S. and Europe.

Thus China began engaging and reshaping the globe like never before, inspiring awe and respect as well as stoking fear and suspicion.

When China first started to open its economy in the 1980s, many enterprises hoped to hook up with Western companies in joint ventures. But in the last decade, major Chinese firms were more interested in buying potential partners. A prime example: the high-tech behemoth Lenovo Group, which in 2005 snapped up the personal computer unit from IBM Corp.

The country's growing influence has been a huge source of pride for the Chinese, who feel that foreigners spent much of the past century kicking them around.

Many take pleasure in pointing out that the world's most powerful nation, America, is now deep into debt with China.

Marxists become bankers
China holds nearly $800 billion in Treasury securities. Never before has the U.S. owed so much money to one country. The self-styled Marxists have actually become bankers who can throw global markets into a tizzy with slight hints they might dump their U.S. holdings.

Despite the newfound wealth, millions of Chinese are still dirt poor. Living conditions in the hinterlands can be medieval. While the country consistently reports eye-popping economic growth each year, the income gap continues to grow. Although annual income has jumped 74 percent since 2003 for city dwellers, those living in the countryside only got an income bump of 31 percent.

But in many ways, the Chinese masses can point to head-spinning improvements in their daily lives. In the 1990s, it was rare for people to have private telephones. But now, China Mobile Ltd. — the world's biggest phone company — says it has 508 million customers.

China now has 338 million Internet uses — a figure higher than the entire U.S. population of just under 307 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, a government-sanctioned research group.

Bicycles used to rule the roads in China, but few dare to pedal them now in major cities, where streets are clogged with new cars. In the southern city of Guangzhou — the capital of China's most important manufacturing base — 180,000 new vehicles hit the roads last year.

Good news for the U.S.?
This is terrific news for the beleaguered U.S. carmakers like Ford and General Motors, who are hoping Chinese consumers can keep their companies from collapsing.

But the exploding consumption and the industrial boom has taken a severe toll on China's environment. Many believe that China's rise will be halted by pollution and a severe water shortage.

China dethroned the U.S. this decade for the dubious title of being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. A World Bank study said the country is home to 16 of the 20 worst cities for air quality. Three-quarters of the water flowing through urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing, the study said.

Cleaning up the mess is a huge, expensive challenge for the Communist Party's leaders. But they seem to believe they're up for it, and there's little talk in public about political reforms that would make China more democratic.

For many despots in the world, China has become an attractive model: an authoritarian system that delivers stupendous economic growth. Why bother listening to American sermons about democracy when autocratic China seems to be thriving?

But China's political system remains brittle. Even things like Facebook and YouTube are perceived as threats and blocked by China's Internet censors. The leadership seems to know that although the surface can appear calm and orderly in an authoritarian society, a small problem can quickly develop into a big one.