Beijing: China is on track to displace the US as the winner of the most Olympic gold medals this year. Get used to it.
Today, it’s the athletic surge that dazzles us, but China will leave a similar outsize footprint in the arts, in business, in science, in education.
Rising power: Chinese paramilitary police officers stand next to the National Olympic Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China’s surge, overcoming Western monopoly, at the Olympics seems to be a prelude to a similar performance in the fields of arts, business, science and education. Photograph: Oded Baulty / AP
The world we are familiar with, dominated by the US and Europe, is a historical anomaly. Until the 1400s, the largest economies in the world were China and India, and forecasters then might have assumed that they would be the ones to colonize the Americas — meaning that by all rights this newspaper should be printed in Chinese or perhaps Hindi.
But then China and India both began to fall apart at just the time that Europe began to rise. China’s per capita income was actually lower, adjusted for inflation, in the 1950s than it had been at the end of the Song Dynasty in the 1270s.
Now the world is reverting to its normal state — a powerful Asia — and we will have to adjust. Just as many Americans know their red wines and easily distinguish a Manet from a Monet, our children will become connoisseurs of pu-er tea and will know the difference between guanxi and Guangxi, the Qin and the Qing. When angry, they may even insult each other as “turtle's eggs”.
During the rise of the West, Chinese culture constantly had to adapt. When the first Westerners arrived and brought their faith in Virgin Mary, China didn’t have an equivalent female figure to work miracles — so Guan Yin, the God of Mercy, underwent a sex change and became the Goddess of Mercy.
Now it will be our turn to scramble to compete with a rising Asia.
This transition to Chinese dominance will be a difficult process for the entire international community, made more so by China’s prickly nationalism. China still sees the world through the prism of guochi, or national humiliation, and among some young Chinese, success sometimes seems to have produced not so much national self-confidence as cockiness.
China’s intelligence agencies are becoming more aggressive in targeting the US, including corporate secrets, and the Chinese military is busily funding new efforts to poke holes in American military pre-eminence. These include space weapons, cyberwarfare and technologies to threaten US aircraft carrier groups.
US Pesident George W. Bush was roundly criticized for attending the Beijing Olympics, but, in retrospect, I think he was right to attend. The most important bilateral relationship in the world in the coming years will be the one between China and the US, and Bush won enormous goodwill from the Chinese by showing up.
Having won that political capital, though, Bush didn’t spend it. Bush should have spoken out more forcefully on behalf of human rights, including urging Beijing to stop shipping the weapons used for genocide in Darfur.
It’s a difficult balance to get right, but China’s determination to top the gold medal charts — and its overwhelming efforts to find and train the best athletes — bespeaks a larger desire for international respect and legitimacy. We can use that desire also to shame and coax better behaviour out of Chinese leaders.
When the Chinese government sentences two frail women in their late 70s to labour camp because they applied to hold a legal protest during the Olympics, as it just has, then that is an outrage to be addressed not by “silent diplomacy” but by pointing it out.
We also must recognize that informal pressures are becoming increasingly important. The most important figure in China-US relations today isn’t the ambassador for either country, but Yao Ming, the basketball player—and David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, is second. The biggest force for democratization isn’t the Group of seven governments but the millions of Chinese who study in the West and return—sometimes with green cards or blue passports—but always with greater expectations of freedom.
China’s rise is sustained in part by the way the Communist Party has grudgingly, sometimes incompetently, adapted to these pressures for change.
On this visit, I dropped by the home of Bao Tong, a former senior Communist Party official who spent seven years in prison for challenging the hardliners during the Tiananmen democracy movement. The guards who monitor him 24x7 let me through when I showed my Olympic press credentials.
Bao noted that Communist leaders used to actually believe in Communism; now they simply believe in Communist Party rule. He recalled that hardliners used to fret about the danger of “peaceful evolution”, meaning a gradual shift to a Western-style political and economic system. “Now, in fact, what we have is peaceful evolution,” he noted.
That flexibility is one of China’s great strengths, and it’s one reason that the most important thing going on in the world today is the rise of China — in the Olympics and in almost every other facet of life.
©2008/The New York Times