By Humphrey Hawksley author of Ceremony of Innocence
What do the British water system, a Greek container port, a Nobel literature prize and a torn national flag on a barren island have in common?
The answer could be nothing bar the two sides of a globalised coin -- some things merge, others don't. Or it could be everything, in that the strands of China's growing influence and contradictions weave a mysterious way through all our lives, yet none of us quite knows what it all means.
A Chinese company owns more than ten per cent of Britain's Thames Water. China is also a big provider of parts for British Telecom and its big multinational Huawei is setting up a factory in Britain - although it has also been condemned by the US Congress for being a risk to national security.
In 2010, the Chinese shipping giant, Cosco bought half the Greek port of Piraeus and pumped more than US$600 million into the country at the height of its continuing financial crisis. China's business practices - lower wages and less job protection - have allowed Cosco's side of the port to thrive while the Greek half languishes -- an example of what all Greeks might have to accept if the country is to recover.
The same year of Cosco's investment, Nobel prizes were awarded to international condemnation because of the winner of the Peace Prize winner, jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, remained confined and was unable to attend. His place was symbolised by an empty chair.
Then two years later, the Nobel committee awards the literature prize to the author Mo Yan who is so close to the Chinese leadership that television networks broke into regular programming to flash news of the announcement.
And mid all this, comes increased military tension in mineral-rich areas claimed by Beijing in the South China and East China Sea where there's meant to be enough oil and gas to keep China supplied for the next fifty years. Rocky outcrops are disputed by Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others, and America has underlined that its shifting its own new military focus is in the Asia-Pacific which will bring it face to face with China.
Suddenly - a region held up as an example for stability and economic growth has become a flashpoint, and the country that is bailing out Western economies a potentially hostile force.
One day we see China through the glittering architecture of Shanghai; the next through the barrel of a gun or the brutality of secret labour camps of Gansu.
This is the face of a modern superpower which - almost certainly -is unsure itself exactly what its values are and where it's heading.
Humphrey Hawksley, a former BBC Beijing Bureau Chief, is the author of Ceremony of Innocence.
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