It has been 30 years since former leader Deng Xiaoping declared the country open for business with the West, creating a modern Silk Road that is again making China rich - and more self-confident.
"I love U.S. dollars," said Mou Zhonghe. "They are the best."
We met Mou Zhonghe driving along part of the 5,000 mile-long Silk Road that once linked Xian to the shores of the Mediterranean. Like many Chinese today, the 43-year-old father of two views the United States with a complicated mix of awe, envy and the desire to be treated as an equal.
"The U.S.," he says, "had better be worried about China's growth - we are competitors."
We travelled another 700 miles to the remote oasis town of Turpan in the western desert, where we found raisin producer Wang Yinxiang - obsessed with a raisin cooperative 8,000 miles away in Fresno, Calif., whom she sees as her biggest competitor.
"I want to be like Sun-Maid," she said.
Wang started out managing a single gas station. Now she runs one of the region's biggest raisin companies. She hasn't even been to the United States - the 10-hour flight scares her - but she is determined to sell her raisins there and has read everything she can about Sun-Maid, the world's largest raisin producer.
"The U.S. is the most advanced country in the world," she said. "Why wouldn't I want to break into your market? I want to overtake you!"
An ambition in stark contrast to some of her less adventurous ancestors - to prevent contact with foreigners they built 5,500 miles of walls from the east coast to the town of Jiayuguan, the mid-point of our journey.
At the end of the Great Wall and in the days of the Silk Road, this was China's frontier. To the west the caravans were constantly threatened by bandits and Chinese was no longer spoken.
Instead of bandits, we met Yang Yongfu, an entrepreneurial wheat farmer who saw the wall not as an obstacle - but as a way to make money. He borrowed almost $600,000 from local banks to rebuild half a mile of the Wall, and then began charging tourists $4 to visit.
"When I first started," Yang said, "people didn't understand."
Now he makes money, nobody is laughing at him anymore, and the local government which has its own more expensive wall section is trying to shut him down. Yang is fighting back. He won't criticize the government openly, but he does say he admires the U.S. for its equality and democracy.
At the end of our journey in Kashgar, a Muslim city that for 2,000 years has been a stopping point for travelers along the Silk Road, we come across Allen Johnson - from Detroit. The 24 year-old came to Beijing four years ago to learn Chinese and teach English.
Attracted by the romance of the Silk Road - he and his wife Larissa came here to open the Gallery coffee shop. They fit right in to Kashgar's ethnic mix.
"For a long time it's been a place of international mixing, a melting pot, and it still is," Johnson said. "I don't feel like I'm something new here."
Foreign merchants no longer come to Kashgar on camel trains, but the era of the Silk Road is still remembered in China as a time of growing wealth, flourishing culture, religious freedom and largely peaceful borders. Precisely the kind of China that the United States would like to deal with today.