Read a really interesting article and discussion at Kuro5hin, on the rise of China and what their future might be... The basic premise of the article being that China will not be able to translate it's current economic power into a global empire like what the US developed over the last century. The reasons given is the lack of economic power gained through innovation and technology, cultural adoption and military power.
I think the second and third are non-issues. Empire creates culture, not the opposite.. and military strength will come with economic development, be it home grown or imported military tech. The interesting question is the source of China's economic power and if it can move from a manufactuing economy to an innovation economy.
I'm inclined to believe that in the short term the lack of free thinking and the lack of original/disruptive thought will limit them in innovation.. but I don't think this will last very long.. China and Asia has always had a society that deferred to authority, but I don't see this lasting for the next 30 years.. but a LOT can happen in that time, I guess..
To me the big question is if the Chinese Government will have the guts to loosen it's grip on control, to let the people (and education system) encourage risk taking and think outside the square... Centralised control works well with manufacturing, but innovation needs freedom.