China has 13 million folks with a "genius" IQ (1% of the population), is graduating many engineers, and has senior leadership in government with engineering degrees. China has 4000+ years of valuing education, and is rapidly becoming the largest population of persons who can speak English.
China does have significantly different cultural roots and traditions from "western" countries. This makes it difficult to understand where we have "common ground." China seems comfortable combining "Communism" with almost unfettered capitalism. Entrepreneur's abound in China, driving an exploding economy and rapid increases in GNP. At the same time it is clear that the Chinese government exerts very strong controls in some areas. Some of these controls run strongly counter to "western" sensibilities. But ...
Consider the reality that China, from a government run economic perspective, can make strategic investments in areas it considers important. This can be education (engineering among other fields), it can be industries, and it can be geo-political influence (Africa as one focus for example.) This puts a lot of resources to bear on targeted objectives ... and since China is rapidly becoming one of the richest countries in the world (GNP to exceed US by 2020 or so), this warrants consideration.
I am currently studying Chinese history -- something we do not cover in U.S. education systems in any depth. When I was in China some twenty years ago, my host indicated "we have been here 4,000 years, we will be here another 4,000 years, right now we are communist." ... a sense of history that is hard to grasp in a country with just over 200 years of it's own history.
There are periodic discussions of emerging China on TED.com, two recent talks include:
Which provide a bit of current context. For those seriously interested, I do not doubt that learning Mandarin would be a useful exercise. Language reflects how we think, and both Chinese language and the Hanzi character set provide a level of insight. Note that the concept of "spelling" does not exist with Hanzi, rather it is properly forming the characters that is critical to clear communication -- so the mental concepts involved diverge from western languages in very basic ways.
However you look at the future, China will play a major role. I fully expect China to be a leading source of innovation, new technology, and scientific breakthroughs over the next decades. I will not be surprised to find China landing on Mars (the Red planet is appropriate for many reasons), and leading in Genetic Engineering as well as technology. There will be spectacular failures along these paths -- but this again reflects different cultural backgrounds and values, and may be viewed by China as part of the "cost of doing business".