Last week The New York Times carried two great but mutually contradictory articles on China. On July 14, Steven Lee Myers and Paul Mozur wrote, “One by one, the United States has hit at the core tenets of Xi Jinping’s vision for a rising China ready to assume the mantle of superpower.” A reasonable conventional wisdom.

A few days earlier, however, Ross Douthat said, “There is another way to look at things. It’s possible that we’re nearing a peak of U.S.-China tension not because China is poised to permanently overtake the United States as a global power, but because China itself is peaking ...” Possibly an equally reasonable insight.

Which one, however, is the real China? This was a question I raised two decades ago as a diplomat posted at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. At that time, I was both mesmerized and puzzled by China. Having studied Chinese in Taiwan in the mid-1970s, that was the first and only time for me to live in the mainland.