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Beijing Games show China's strength

'Faster, higher, stronger' is the message from China that will resonate at the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday and during its battle with the US for global sporting supremacy. Spl: Beijing Olympics 2008

india Updated: Aug 06, 2008 11:43 IST
John Chalmers
John Chalmers

"Faster, higher, stronger" is the message from China that will resonate at the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday and during its battle with the United States for global sporting supremacy.

The Games are about much more than sport, of course.

For one analyst, the picture of China's Communist Party basking in national triumph amid glittering stadiums could be a "Sputnik moment" -- akin to the emerging Soviet Union's stunning launch of a satellite in 1957 - one that, for many in the West, will inspire as much fear as admiration.

And yet that picture glosses over the fragility of a nation beset by pollution, energy strains, social unrest and rural poverty, all of which were laid bare in the run-up to the Games.

These have become party-spoiling leitmotifs of the Beijing Games story, along with condemnation of China's human rights record, anger over its restrictions on media and Western doubts about its will to reform and act as a responsible global power.

"Whatever the longer-term implications of the 2008 Olympics, what has transpired thus far bears little resemblance to Beijing's dreams of Olympic glory," U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations senior fellows Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal wrote in a recent paper, "China's Olympic Nightmare".

"Rather than basking in the admiration of the world, China is beset by internal protests and international condemnation."

Sick man no more

China's rapidly expanding economy has become a crucial locomotive as recession looms around the globe. It is no longer the "sick man of Asia", and Beijing's Olympics will be an in-your-face confirmation.

"For China, this is the crystalisation of three decades of modernisation, a big show and tell, their big moment in the sun," said Victor Cha, head of Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington, and a former White House adviser on Asia.

For all the dividends of China's burgeoning trade and investment links with the outside world, however, a 'rising China' is seen by much of the West as a threat.

The United States, in particular, is anxious about the regional ambitions of a country of 1.3 billion people whose military spending is rising sharply and shrouded in secrecy.

The world's superpower is also suspicious of the economic stakes that China is claiming in Africa and Latin America as it scours the earth for raw commodities, and it worries about Beijing's clout as a heavyweight holder of U.S. debt and its hefty share of US imports.

Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, said the spectacle of a modern and confident nation could bolster nationalistic pride among Chinese, fuelling anxieties abroad.

"That Sputnik moment is very much from a grassroots sense of how the scenes from Beijing are going to play out," he said.

"What's going to transmit are the buildings and what an impressive effort this is. This is not a tottering regime, this is not a basket case, and the Games are going to put that fact on full display."

"Closed, Aggressive and Furious"

An outpouring of patriotic fury earlier this year, directed at Western targets seen as sympathising with Tibetan riots and protests against Chinese rule, was evidence for many of the dark side of China's rise.

French goods were boycotted after protesters tried to grab the Olympic torch on its parade through Paris and some foreign journalists in Beijing were bombarded with hate mail.

"...what foreigners saw was not a rational, open and tolerant China stepping into the world, but rather a closed, aggressive and furious China stepping into the world," wrote Zhao Lingmin in a commentary in China's current affairs magazine South Breeze.

In the run-up to the Games, President Hu Jintao has sought to portray China as a "harmonious" country whose rise threatens no one, and the government has carried out education campaigns to discourage raucous shows of nationalism.

Cha noted that although the government sometimes manipulates outbursts of nationalism, it is a double-edged sword. "It's a very dangerous thing for the leadership," he said. "Today it will be directed against NBC for negative broadcasting about the Games, but tomorrow it could be directed against the leadership."

The flash of rioting in Tibet was followed by an earthquake in the province of Sichuan that killed at least 70,000, turning global disapproval to global sympathy overnight.

For Kerry Brown, senior fellow of the Asia Programme at the Chatham House think-tank in London, these two events -- in very different ways -- captured the fragility of modern China.

"This great economic juggernaut that scares and worries so many people outside China contains within it deep weaknesses and problems," he wrote on the website

He told Reuters that a chief weakness is deep-seated social inequality and poverty, particularly among the hundreds of millions of migrant workers "on whose sweat, blood and tears modern China is built" but who today are disenfranchised.

Such issues may be brushed under the red carpet at the Games but will re-emerge. The West will also demand that China use its influence to calm troublespots from Tibet to Sudan and Myanmar.

"The level of foreign expectations after the Games will get higher, not lower," said Cha. "People will be asking China to do more."