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While visiting Japan in 2008 with my friend Eric, he pointed out that only in our lifetime had "Made in Japan" become a seal of quality.

In a 1990's sketch by Les Inconnus, a traditional religious symbol is derided as "Made in Taiwan", i.e.: worthless and disposable. That was less than 20 years ago, yet it sounds more than a little dated, now that average income is higher in Taiwan than in France (at purchasing power parity.)

One day Stephen Colbert's quip that "China makes our happy meals possible" will sound similarly antiquated. The Chinese still make loads and loads of cheap disposable plastic crap, but now they also make Apple iPhones and Airbus airliners. Fifteen years ago many bright Chinese students in Western universities hoped for a job and life in the West. Now most of them plan to come back home. More and more never leave: there have always been great Chinese scientists, but they used to study and work abroad. While Chinese scientific production is still small, (about on par with Belgium's, a country with less people than Guangzhou or quite a few other Chinese cities you've never heard of) every year the world sees more papers coming out of universities in Beijing, Chengdu or Harbin. It seems only a matter of time before China becomes one of the world's top centers for research.

Political scientists often talk about the "road to Denmark", the set of reforms that are needed to turn a developing country into, well, "Denmark", i.e.: a safe, rich and peaceful nation with a high and sustainable standard of living. Economists disagree wildly on what policies are needed to effect this transformation, or on whether policies even matter all that much, but during the last few decades many countries have certainly managed to do so: Taiwan grew under autocratic rulers, Hong Kong was a relatively free society under British colonial rule, South Korea progressively morphed from a brutal dictatorship to a democracy, yet all three took only 40 years to join the select club of most industrialized nations on Earth. The same forty years also saw Japan, responsible for some of the worst warcrimes of the modern era, humiliated and forced to reform during ten years of US occupation, eventually become a peaceful and democratic economic superpower, with a society so high-tech it makes every country in the Western world look "developing".

Will China succeed like its smaller cousins? Is today's China the Taiwan of the 80's writ large? It is of course very hard to tell, and some facts are far from encouraging: China executes three times as many people as the rest of the world combined, still hasn't been able to rid itself of pneumonic plague, and fails to provide clean water to 90% of its population, which understandably holds 274 protests a day.

And yet there is reason for hope. Economic progress is almost always a precursor to social progress, and in the year after I came back, China passed two important milestones: it overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy, then a few month later displaced Germany as the world's second largest exporter. It remains, in both cases, far behind the United States, but since there are five Chinese for each American, this is unlikely to stay such for more than a couple decades.

This economic miracle is both extremely impressive and momentously important for future world affairs, but it doesn't really answer the one question I've been asked the most since my return: Why should anyone go to China ? What has become my standard response says more about my failings as a salesman than it does about China. However, I'm not trying to be a salesman, and I'd feel dishonest if I glossed over the overbearing pollution, the unending hassle of eating, sleeping and moving around in a country where nobody reads any language you understand, much less speak, or the vanishingly low odds of completing a long-distance train journey without getting urinated on by an incontinent toddler.

Yet if, like me, you're a young adult eager to see and understand the world, I'm convinced you should go to China. The country is not all that well-endowed in traditional tourist attractions. Are Chinese cities the best in the world ? No. They are certainly impressive, but as centers of wealth and culture they still lag far behind Paris or New York or even Singapore. The most beautiful landscapes? Not really. (That would be Utah.) Even the breathtaking mountains around the Li river are only a damper and grayer version of Thailand's Phang Nga bay. Chinese food is certainly interesting, but I'd be happier in Thailand or Japan or indeed France. Entertainment possibilities are pretty good, but again a far cry from Vegas, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Do you crave human contact and cultural interchange? I do have a few fond memories, notably that smiling guy in Guilin who got his dog to pose just for the benefit of my camera, but with so few English-speaking Chinese, and Mandarin being so hard to learn, you'd be foolish to hope for much meaningful interaction.

And yet visiting China is a truly unique experience, and you should definitely do it. China is one of those rare places where things are happening, right now. Many tourists tend to seek out places with a great past, like Europe, where imperial capitals were built a couple centuries ago, or the Grand Canyon, which formed over the last 17 million years. In China however, history is being made, today. A billion very poor people are, for the first time in centuries, given the opportunity to hope for a better future, and hungrily taking it. This is, perhaps by necessity, happening in a not-always orderly fashion, with many negative consequences for the Chinese and a few inconveniences for the tourist. The vast Expo 2010 construction grounds in Shanghai somewhat detracts from the river view. A city like London, with a venerable (i.e. antiquated) subway system, is a lot easier to navigate than one like Chengdu, where the state-of-the-art subway system is only currently being built.

The most-populous country on Earth is making history as we speak, and the condition of a quarter of the world's population is being transformed, virtually overnight. I feel incredibly privileged to have witnessed a small part of that transformation with my own eyes. If you have any interest in the World and its inhabitants, I suggest you get on a plane as soon as you can.

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