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Originally published November 17, 2009 at 3:19 PM | Page modified November 17, 2009 at 5:31 PM

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A conversation with China, not a lecture

The youthful leaders of two powerful economic rivals, the United States and China, meet to discuss the future.

CHINA: bigger, bolder, richer. Such is the reality that shapes President Obama's trip to Beijing and his talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The two youthful leaders represent a generational change at the highest levels of their governments, and a contemporary sensibility about their relative economic influence and regional presence.

Capitalist China casts a much larger shadow in the world than communist China. The country's wealth, power and self-confidence change the two leaders' conversations about their respective economies, national security, climate change and human rights.

"I do not believe one country's success must come at the expense of another," Obama said at a news conference. Given the amount of Chinese lending that props up the U.S. budget, the low-cost goods that fuel American consumer spending, and an epic trade imbalance with China, the quote has all sorts of ironic interpretations.

Obama and Hu had two and a half hours of intensive private conversations, according to news accounts. These are the kinds of sessions that allow each leader to take measure of the other. Healthy contacts in advance of future, unpredictable emergencies over, say, North Korea or Iran.

However the diplomats might define such a working relationship, the two countries need each other. The United States lacks the capacity to unilaterally dictate events. China's rising influence and power are part of a productive and desirable partnership.

China is changing in ways that defy old and new stereotypes, from Mao's smiling countenance to Shanghai shopping malls. Sixty percent of the country is still rural. The urban-rural income gap is huge, though change is under way.

Scholars, such as those at The National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, have looked at the influence of rural development on land rights and the growth of the rule of law. Core values and expectations are changing.

Obama poked and nudged his host on Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and Internet freedom and censorship, but the public finger wag was missing. This is the behavior of two ideological and economic rivals that expect to meet and talk again.

The imagined ability of the U.S. to dictate and issue orders is a relic of rising global capacity, not just in China.

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