I recently flew from Chicago to Beijing, a prosaic enough journey for this experienced business traveler and, yet, a fascinating journey for this student of U.S. history.
Putting aside all the cultural differences, traveling to China is like surveying - in real-time fashion - the past dozen decades of America's social and economic history. It's all there: from our 1890s robber baron capitalism to today's high-tech post-industrialism, with a slew of social revolutions tossed in.
China is simply all over the dial, historically speaking, so understanding that weird sense of time displacement is the first step to figuring out how China must inevitably grow up politically.
Forget trying to figure out today's China through its own history, which consists of a seemingly endless cycle of disintegrating peace and integrating war. Instead, simply stipulate that China's last extended civil war, which did not spin to a complete stop until the murderous Mao Zedong departed and eventual successor Deng Xiaoping opened the country back up for business in the early 1980s, deposited China somewhere in the vicinity of rising America of the late 1800s - absent democracy, of course.
Once you realize that, then depending on where you go around China, you can locate yourself somewhere in the last 125 years of America's own world-shaping ascendancy.
Foreign policy-wise, you're looking at America circa Teddy Roosevelt: China's military stick is getting bigger, but it still prefers to speak softly, mostly threatening small island nations off its coast.
Check out China's space program, which recently just put its first man in orbit. Beijing now speaks openly of repeating our 1960s quest for the moon. Groovy! Let me just raise my glass of Tang in salute and wonder why Americans aren't on Mars yet.
The nation is likewise undergoing a construction and investment boom that's right out of 1920s America, and frankly, that should give pause to anyone concerned with global economic stability. But there's no sign of a slowdown. Shanghai's already got twice as many skyscrapers - 4,000 - as New York and plans to add another thousand soon enough.
Sports-wise, China is poised to break out big time on the international stage, placing it approximately in 1950s America. Watch the Chinese win the most gold medals in Beijing in 2008. Then watch the U.S. Senate launch a series of investigations into our "national humiliation."
There's a sexual revolution brewing in China that's eerily reminiscent of our late 1960s. I know, with over a billion people, it can't exactly be an ancient Chinese secret. But, seriously, China's urban youth are taking one great leap forward from "Father Knows Best" to "Sex and the City," and while this revolution won't be televised, it's being blogged.
China's film industry is to die for, featuring glamorous movie stars right out of Hollywood's golden age and presenting a glorious romanticism we lost somewhere around "Rebel Without a Cause."
Today, China has a technology corridor around Shanghai that matches anything we've got near San Francisco or Boston, and the country's cranking scientific PhDs by the tens of thousands each year. But China also suffers widespread labor and peasant unrest that pushes the government to break skulls routinely in politically incorrect scenes right out of America's early trade union days and the Great Depression.
Walk around China today, and you cannot help but be reminded of postwar America, when most men still smoked cigarettes and every family's dream was to "see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet!"
By that time scale, China will soon have the world's most aggressive, risk-taking cancer research industry (coming soon to a pharmacy near you) to go along with the world's smoggiest cities (already achieved).
China cannot continue this confused state of affairs much longer. Corruption-wise, Beijing is stuck somewhere around America's Teapot Dome scandal era of the early 1920s, and that's no good. China's political system needs to be able to process all this social and economic change with more flexibility.
But here's one last American tie-in that suggests how future political compromises may eventually be forged: China's next generation of leadership comes online over the next several years. Many of these guys got their college education right here in America a couple of decades ago. That formative experience may well turn out to be our country's greatest contribution to China's political evolution.
Here's hoping any history lessons stuck.