Be not afraid of growing slowly, be only afraid of standing still.

-Chinese proverb

China has come a long, long way in a short span of time, and life is undeniably better for most Chinese than it has ever been. However, this rapid development has also exacerbated many of the country's pre-existing problems, and created some new issues along the way. The huge population, gender imbalance, wealth distribution, human rights, territorial disputes, damage to the environment, and the threat posed by respiratory viruses such as SARS, bird flu, and A(H1N1) are just some of the critical issues that need to be addressed in the new China.

In spite of the 2008 world economic crisis and government measures to slow the growth rate, the pace of change in China today is difficult to comprehend and you really do have to go there to understand it. However, not everyone is caught up in the whirlwind and modern China displays greater contrast than anywhere else on the planet. While rich, urban dwellers speed through their high-powered lives in black Audis, stopping to pick up the latest electronic gadgets and designer clothes in shiny new malls, in the countryside, farmers still sporting the blue uniform of the Mao era plow their fields with buffalo and wonder when change might come their way. In spite of programs to try to redress the balance, disparity and inequality look set as fixtures in the Chinese social landscape for the time-being. This disparity has yet to evoke real dissatisfaction -- but it's just around the corner and the bright lights of the city beckon many young country dwellers. The government is keen to keep its "iron rice bowl" secure and to this end, in a recent program, incentives such as a new washing machine are offered to those who remain in the countryside. But even if wealth distribution is successful, the larger emerging problem is that as people have more money (and education), they will also want greater social freedom. Social reform looked possible in the early 1980s, but under both Jiang Zemin and now Hu Jintao, it seems farther away than ever. If people don't start to have more social liberties, and soon, they may once again question their social and political rights and rise against the system that is perceived as endemically corrupt and oppressive.

There are still hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in China, and while its human rights record has somewhat limited its international standing in the past, increased wealth is making this increasingly easy for Western governments to ignore. Outwardly, modern China seems to have all the trappings of a free, capitalist society, but don't be lulled into believing that just because there are now Starbucks, five-star hotels, and maglev trains that there isn't oppression: Internally China is still a police state where the media is censored, religions are oppressed, and political principles can land you in prison.

Nowhere is this truer than the peripheral regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Both areas have an established history as Chinese tribute regions and are also both predominantly populated by local ethnic groups (the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs, respectively). Both regions have long sought independence, and while they are "autonomous" regions of China, the harsh reality is that the Han Chinese are colonizing them, populating the cities with their own people, and extracting minerals and resources. The situation in Tibet has always been fragile at best, and in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, peaceful protests were met with an armed response and tensions boiled over leaving scores of Han Chinese and Tibetans dead and injured; real numbers have not emerged (and probably never will) due to media blackouts. The situation is still far from resolved and armed troops are an everyday feature on the streets of Lhasa in 2009. Cynics would argue that the reason media coverage of the July 2009 Xinjiang riots was more open was because it was principally Han people who were being attacked, and with over 150 dead, these were the heaviest street casualties since the Tian'an Men Square Protests in 1989.

Of course, the Chinese have also brought many benefits to these peripheral regions, and doubtless Lhasa and ?rumqi would not be as developed, wealthy, and well connected as they are now if they were the capitals of independent countries, but separatists argue that this is their decision to make. China is not about to give up these two huge, mineral-rich provinces that act as border buffer zones, but neither are the Tibetans or the Uighurs, which leaves an uneasy stalemate liable to flare up at any time.

Conversely, a decade on, the reacquired territories of Hong Kong and Macau are being comfortably integrated into modern China, and, following a recent change of leadership, relations with "renegade province" Taiwan are also at an all-time high.

Hu Jintao's early departure from the 2009 G8 Summit to deal with the Xinjiang riots recognizes that there are manifold internal issues that need to be dealt with, but, in the wider world, China is finally being recognized as the ascendant power it is and there is more interest in the country than ever. In spite of ongoing trading disputes, particularly with the U.S., China continues to produce and prosper and, in recent years, links have been developed with a number of African and South American nations to broaden their trading base. Critics in Europe and the U.S. voice concerns over China's "no conditions" investments in troubled countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, stating that these contribute to human rights abuses, but the Chinese argue that previous trading partners were doing the same thing before the Chinese arrived and are just unhappy that their roles and profits have been usurped.

Unprecedented development has also dramatically worsened environmental conditions to the point that in 2008 China became the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases (although U.S. citizens still produce five times more greenhouse gases per capita). Environmental degradation presents a very real threat to the nation as increasingly frequent dust storms blast through the north of the country, reducing the amount of arable land available to feed China's burgeoning population, while in many cities rivers run black and groundwater is toxic. Though as much driven by economics as conservation, there is now a move toward greater environmental consideration, and China has committed to achieving the standards laid out (for developing nations) in the Kyoto Agreement by 2012. On the ground, measures like the Green Great Wall, which aims to counteract soil erosion in the northwest of the country, are combined with small scale initiatives like seawater flushing toilets and taxes on environmentally damaging products such as disposable chopsticks, but there is still a long way to go.

As China has emerged onto the world platform in grand fashion and will doubtless become an increasingly significant international player, it must be remembered that in many respects it is still a developing country and the huge nature of the economic, environmental, political, and, crucially, social problems that face it will continue to test the leadership for many years to come. The long slumbering Chinese dragon has certainly awoken and made its presence known, but it remains to be seen whether it can fly.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.