Introducing The Atlantic's China Channel

China's rise is the story of the century. Introducing a new section covering the social, political, economic, and cultural stories of the world's most dynamic country.


(Nir Rosen/Reuters)

What is the real China?

Is it a massive, rapidly growing country with the world's second largest economy, a string of gleaming new airports, and the fastest train on the planet -- home to a fifth of the human population and the locus of a magnificent civilization? Is the real China best seen in its growing military? Its thriving Internet culture? Is it young, urban, on the move?

Or does emphasizing these characteristics distort more than it reveals? The real China may be more a middle-income country, with hundreds of millions of people living in poverty, and a diplomatic welterweight. It may be corrupt, burdened with a sclerotic, authoritarian regime presiding over an unbalanced economy. It may be that the real China, unlike any other country in human history, will grow old, even die, before it could ever grow rich.

You can see where I'm going: China is so vast and enigmatic that, to paraphrase Paul Simon, we can easily see what we want to see (and disregard the rest). There are any number of scenarios for China's ascension to global hegemony -- and an equal number for its doomed collapse.

But we do know this: China is and will remain a defining story in the contemporary world. Whatever the country's long-term fate, it will remain central to global diplomatic, economic, and political issues for years to come. And for the foreseeable future, no bilateral relationship will be more important to the United States than its relationship with Beijing.

For Americans, China's rise is often a matter of concern and confusion: We tend to view it with a mix of trepidation and awe -- but also from a great distance and through a glass darkly. So with the China Channel, we want to take the opportunity to sustain a closer, clearer exploration.

Here are some of the key questions we'll be looking at:

  • Can China's authoritarian regime continue to satisfy the needs of a wired, scrutinizing population?
  • Can its economy continue to grow through an investment-led model that even the country's own rulers believe is unsustainable?
  • Even if China does manage to continue growing, can its leaders manage the country's increasingly dire environmental conditions?
  • Can China ensure that its "soft power" matches its diplomatic, military, and economic clout?
  • Ultimately, where will China go from here?

Nobody -- not even the best-credentialed experts -- can tell you the answer to this last question. But at The Atlantic, we want to find out.

The China Channel starts out with a huge advantage: National correspondent James Fallows, an Atlantic contributor for more than 30 years, a former resident of Beijing, and one of contemporary journalism's true China specialists, will be a key contributor. We will feature regular analysis and commentary from a wide range of correspondents, freelance contributors, photographers, and videographers based both inside and outside the country. We will also bring you regular content from partners like ChinaFile, a new site featuring some of the world's most prominent observers on China, and Tea Leaf Nation, another new site profiling contemporary China through the lens of social media.

As the China Channel's editor, I'll look forward to covering a country where I spent six years as a teacher, student, analyst, blogger, and translator. When first I arrived there, my mental image of China was of a monolith, a country of a billion people marching lockstep toward a common goal. But the longer I stayed, the more I came to see the rich diversity of what we might call "the Chinese idea" -- a diversity that, with a wide range of approaches, we take it as our mission to bring critically to The Atlantic's readers.

Two hundred years ago, while spending his final years in exile on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon remarked that "when China wakes, the world shakes" -- a quote that still reflects the centuries-long Chinese reality of a nation struggling to realize a great destiny. Now China's time has arrived. Whatever happens in the coming years, The Atlantic will help shape the coverage of a country for which, as with the proverbial blind men trying to understand an elephant by touch, no one version of reality will do.