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Martin Jacques: Magnificent Olympics earned China global respect
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By Martin Jacques 

2008 was to be the year when China celebrated before the world its extraordinary transformation since 1978. It could not have been much, if any, earlier. For one of the most impressive features of the country’s transformation has been its self-discipline: all other considerations have been subordinated to the overwhelming priority of economic growth and the reduction of poverty. Even if, say, the Olympic Games could have been staged in Beijing in 1992 or 1996, then it would surely have been regarded as an unnecessary distraction from the fundamental task at hand. By the 30th anniversary of the reform programme, however, China felt sufficiently strong and self-confident to display before the rest of humanity the fruits of its transformation. The coming-out party was the Olympic Games. Post-Olympics China is subtly changed from pre-Olympics China because the world now sees China through slightly different eyes.

Martin Jacques  

Three events have dominated and defined foreign perceptions of China in 2008. The nadir was the riots in Tibet. These broadcast an image of China as intolerant and repressive. Certainly in the west, but far beyond too, what was seen as the failure of the Chinese government to allow Tibetans their culture and their sense of difference, and to brand all opposition as separatist, was the cause of widespread alienation and unease. This was unquestionably the most difficult moment for China in 2008. But this jarring memory moved into the background with the Sichuan earthquake. There was a global wave of sympathy for the tragedy that engulfed hundreds of thousands of people. More than that, there was, as if on a slow-burn fuse, a mushrooming respect for the rescue effort mounted by the Chinese government. It is commonplace in the west to regard most governments outside the developed world as inadequate, incompetent, and frequently corrupt. Yet in the Sichuan earthquake the Chinese government mounted a rescue effort that was at least the equal of anything a western government might have done and in many respects much superior; one is reminded of the disgraceful failure of the Bush administration to deal with Hurricane Katrina.

This perception of Chinese competence and statecraft was confirmed in abundance with the Olympics; the magnificent infrastructure, the Bird's Nest stadium that became a symbol of Chinese modernity and beauty, the opening ceremony which fired imaginations around the world in a way that no previous ceremony had succeeded in doing and which conveyed a sense of Chinese history and culture that everyone wherever they lived could relate to. The world may have been aware that China had spent a fortune on the Olympics Game, and that it had become an overriding government priority, and yet none of this besmirched or detracted from a sense of admiration and awe of Chinese competence. More than all those Chinese gold medals, huge competence was the headline that flashed around the world during the Olympics and will prove to be its lasting memory. Given all the ominous talk in advance of the Games – from Beijing's pollution to fears about Internet censorship and rumours about human rights protests – all of which largely came to nought, this was not quite what the world had expected.

As a result, China has emerged from the Games with a new kind of global reputation and respect. It is interesting, in this context, to reflect on the reaction of London – where the 2012 Olympics will be held – to the Beijing Games and how it now perceives its own effort. This has been salutary. The almost unanimous view is that London cannot possibly compete with what Beijing achieved. Partly this is for reasons of cost; but it is rather more than that. The fact is that a country like Britain simply does not have the infrastructural competence of China: while China has built the Three Gorges Dam and constructed vast new cities, not to mention the immense effort in response to the Sichuan earthquake rescue, Britain, like most western countries, has relatively little experience of such ventures in recent times and when it does undertake them, such as the new Wembley football stadium, it often messes up. Instead London is seeking to emphasise the homely character of its Games, thereby making light of any invidious comparisons with Beijing's magnificent infrastructure. The cameo of the London Olympics presented during the closing ceremony, for example, featured, amongst other things, a red London bus. The cameo also highlighted British popular culture, from footballers to pop singers; but in so doing it also – in comparison with the Beijing opening ceremony – inadvertently drew attention to the fact that the UK has something of an identity crisis when it comes to how it should present itself to the outside world. The contrast with the way in which the Beijing opening ceremony conveyed a confident sense of China could hardly have been greater.

The west has hitherto thought of itself as without peer when it comes to organisation and competence; yet implicitly Britain is conceding that it cannot for the most part compete with China on this front. Herein, then, lies one of the most important legacies of the Beijing Olympics, arguably the most important. There is now a belated and reluctant recognition in the west and elsewhere of the competence and capacity of the Chinese state. Given Chinese history, of course, no-one should really be surprised by this: China, after all, is the home of the oldest continuing state-tradition in the world and enjoys a very long history of remarkable infrastructural projects. Hitherto, however, the west has believed that there is a direct relationship between levels of development and the competence of the state. In the light of this, together with a belief in the virtues of western democracy, it has blithely assumed that the Chinese state must be inferior to the western state. The west will now be obliged to think of China in a rather different way, as one of the great centres of statecraft, arguably the greatest. But this is only one of the many ways in which the west will, over the coming years, be forced to re-evaluate its attitudes towards China.

Martin Jacques was editor of Marxism Today from 1977-1991 and deputy editor of the Independent from 1994-6. In 1993 he founded the influential British think tank Demos which provided some of the ideological underpinnings of New Labour, although Jacques was later critical of the Blair administration, especially the decision to invade Iraq. Jacques is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and was recently visiting professor at Beijing's Renmin University. He is a regular columnist for the Guardian and is currently writing a book about the rise of China.

(China.org.cn September 26, 2008)

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