hina used to be far away, the country at the bottom of the world. Certainly that must be how it seemed just 20 years ago in a place like Pekin, Ill., a city of 34,000 residents on the Illinois River that took its name from the Chinese capital in the 1820's. According to local legend, Pekin is directly opposite Beijing on the globe. The high-school teams there were still called the Chinks until 1981, when they were renamed the Dragons. A smart and forward-looking decision, it turns out: as is happening throughout the United States, the Pekinese have in their own local ways grown inextricably linked to the Chinese of today. They are now connected not by an imaginary hole through the earth but by the world's shipping lanes, financial markets, telecommunications networks and, above all, the globalization of appetites.
Follow the corn, for example. Trade deals struck between the U.S. and China in April will, farmers around Pekin hope, lead China to lower its import barriers and buy half a million metric tons of American corn this year. Illinois corn farmers get higher-than-usual prices for their exports because they have ready access to river transportation and in turn to big ports. Pekin is also home to the plant of Aventine Renewable Energy, the nation's second-largest producer of ethanol, a fuel derived from corn. (Ten percent of the American corn crop is converted to fuel.) China recently passed Japan as the world's second-largest consumer of petroleum, and growing Chinese demand has lately been pushing up oil prices worldwide. That makes ethanol an increasingly attractive alternative. And, indeed, ethanol prices climbed 40 cents a gallon this spring, dragging up U.S. corn prices as a result, a boon to Pekin's farmers and industry.
Then there's Excel Foundry and Machine, a local factory that makes parts for machinery used in heavy construction and mining operations. Doug Parsons, the current head of this family-owned business, has already relocated 12 percent of the company's production to China in order to hold onto business that would otherwise be lost to China's huge, cheap foundries; during the next decade he may well have to move much more of his production offshore. Parsons has China on his mind for other reasons too: over the past few months, the prices of copper and iron, like those of oil, have skyrocketed in response to Chinese demand, driving up Excel's costs as a result. At the same time, however, his international mining customers have been buying more Excel products in order to feed that same Chinese appetite for commodities. And Parsons himself recently started a new company that he says will build and service advanced rock-crushing machines -- in part to take advantage of the frenzied construction boom under way in China. (One measure of just how big this boom is: China currently has more than 15,000 highway projects in the works, which will add 162,000 kilometers of road to the country, enough to circle the planet at the equator four times.)
Even something as all-American as Pekin's new Wal-Mart Supercenter spreads China's influence around town. Because 12 percent of China's exports to the U.S. end up on Wal-Mart's shelves, and because Wal-Mart's trade with China accounts for 1 percent of that country's gross domestic product, the company exerts tremendous downward pressure on prices. Its buying power enables it to dictate, in effect, what a Chinese manufacturer will get for producing goods that American consumers want. By selling Chinese-made portable DVD players with seven-inch L.C.D. screens for less than $200, for instance, Wal-Mart helped to cut the price of these trendy devices in half over the last year. Competitors have to match the chain's prices or go under. Nearly every shopper in Pekin will therefore save money by shopping at Wal-Mart -- which is to say he or she will profit from the retailer's China connection. Of course, this very connection may also contribute to Wal-Mart's ability to drive other Pekin-area stores out of business.