What the Olympics tells us about China

The Beijing Olympics beginning this week will signal many good and several bad things about China. Some images will be grossly exaggerated by media coverage, but most will be reasonably accurate and thus revealing of where China stands today in its stunning but costly "rise." All will reflect this age of transformative globalization, making China the perfect host for the 2008 Games.

Returning to the global stage after its "century of humiliation" and the tortuous insanities of Mao Zedong’s long rule, China naturally views the Games as its coming-out party. To that end, Beijing seeks to control every possible aspect, seeking to burnish the image of the "China model."

As in that development model, China’s party bosses have remained relentlessly "on message" throughout the build-up to the Games, thrown massive amounts of labor at any problem that arises, and ruthlessly clamped down on any dissenting domestic gadflies attracted to the Olympic flame and the international glare it generates. Don’t be stunned if Chinese athletes win the most gold; that’s how badly Beijing wants to impress.

But the harsh costs of China’s model are also inescapably put on display — to wit, Beijing’s now-legendary smog. The Communist Party wants the world to focus on medals hanging around the necks of Chinese athletes, but the Games’ dominant image will undoubtedly be the pollution-filtering masks attached to many competitors’ faces.

Such a harsh spotlight is clearly warranted. Thanks to Asia’s rapid industrialization, China has become ground zero for the world’s most polluted cities. No surprise there: travel back a century and you’d find European and American cities atop that list.

Rising Asia routinely sacrifices its environment for large-scale economic development. As the West ultimately learned, China and its neighbors will be forced to balance such competing interests by making government more the honest arbiter and less the corrupt enforcer of big business’ every whim.

Beijing’s frantic attempts to manipulate the weather for smog-clearing rain speak to a wider human hubris: that we can easily engineer our way out of the problems associated with global climate change. Again, the biggest social trade-offs are inherently political questions, not simple equations for unelected technocrats to solve one afternoon sitting around a table — no matter how supreme their mandate seems.

As a result of hosting such a complex international event, China will end up learning much about what it means to be a high-profile great power in a global economy. Already, China has seen Western activists highlight its many unsavory relationships around the world, from Sudan to Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

Just as powerful have been local protests in China’s western territories by those avowed nationalists who logically fear a loss of cultural identity as their meager economies are progressively integrated into the coastal provinces’ developmental juggernaut. If there’s anything that exemplifies both the promise and peril of globalization’s stunning advance around the planet, it’s the fear of many Tibetans that their way of life is being permanently reformatted.

Then there’s Beijing’s newly found respect for intellectual property. Having sold exclusive TV coverage rights to foreign networks, China has made an unprecedented effort to crack down on video piracy on the web. Point being, when it’s your own brand that’s being counterfeited, you start playing by global rules.

That’s not to say China isn’t trying to impose its own rules on these games, such as the many restrictions placed on foreign media coverage, just that Beijing’s leaders are learning to bend when necessary — witness President Hu Jintao’s unprecedented press conference.

As the wave of recent Chinese-flavored Hollywood movies indicates, China is entering our global narrative in a big way. The Beijing Olympics will dramatically ramp up that process, so we all need to pay attention to what this latest snapshot of one-sixth of humanity tells us about globalization’s tumultuous future.


(Thomas P.M. Barnett (tom@thomaspmbarnett.com) is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and author of the forthcoming book "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush.")