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In his opening remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about his first visit to China in 1976, the year that Chairman Mao Zedong died. “It was already clear then,” he said on July 10, “that China stood on the cusp of remarkable change.” That was 37 years ago, when China was still one of the poorest countries in the world — even after a century of experimentation with one formula after another for making their nation wealthy and powerful again.

It was by no means clear back then whether the incipient changes Biden sensed would really take hold. Few imagined that by the early 21st century, China would be in a position to challenge the United States economically, militarily, and even in the contest for soft power. So, after spending so many generations mired in a cycle of failed reform and revolution, how did China finally manage to chin itself up into its present period of prolonged economic dynamism?

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