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Games For China
Lee Sands 05.21.08, 6:00 PM ET
So far, 2008 has not been a good year for China.
It was to have been the year of the Beijing Olympic Games celebrating China's emergence as a mature global player and the prowess of its gold medal-winning athletes. The party was to have begun on March 24 with the procession of the Olympic Torch through Greece and 19 other countries, and conclude on Aug. 24, the closing day of the Olympic Games.
Moreover, 2008 should have been a boom year, propelled by massive investment in the Olympic Games, the Expo that's come to Shanghai in 2010 and China's burgeoning industrial growth. China expected to bask in the adulation of the world, displaying its admittedly amazing achievements of the past 30 years, replete with new cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and streets crowded with luxury cars.
Instead, nature and the world have not been kind to China. A massive, crippling snowstorm in February stranded many of the 178 million migrants on their way home for the Spring Festival holidays, riots broke out in Tibet and China's reaction to the disturbances provoked demonstrations in France, England, America, Japan and Australia, which disrupted the Torch Relay. Finally on May 14, a massive earthquake in China's Sichuan province devastated the entire region and killed at least 50,000 people.
Public opinion polls demonstrate that Americans have the lowest opinion now of China in years. Threats to boycott the Olympic Opening Ceremonies continue. However, the success or failure of the Games could have a significant effect on how the Chinese view the U.S., at a time when understanding China's dynamics is most crucial for the U.S.
The Olympic Games, of course, will be just as glorious in August 2008 as was envisioned in Moscow in July 2001 when China won the right to hold the Games. Just as the 1964 Olympics marked a breakthrough for Tokyo and the 1988 Olympics accelerated Korea's path to growth and political maturity, so will the Beijing Games for Beijing. The infrastructure of the Games will be striking, with 19 new, very high-tech, ultra-modern Olympics facilities in Beijing alone.
The Games will also be the greenest ever, despite pollution. Beijing itself has been rebuilt over the past seven years, with waves of urban slums replaced by a modern infrastructure, miles of new roads, a completely redone subway and light rail system, and a digitalized, high-tech community. For Chinese companies, the Olympics will mark their opportunity to join the ranks of the world's best.
For the average Chinese, however, the Games, now far more than anticipated in 2001, will be a symbol of collective perseverance and national pride. The vast gulf between the Chinese perception of themselves and western perceptions of China continues, and the potential for serious misunderstanding remains.
Although vastly better off than in 2001, and even more so than in 1978 when economic reform began, life for the average Chinese is still unimaginably more difficult than it is for Americans. Average incomes are much lower, living conditions more crowded and less comfortable, and outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and the cities along the coast, infrastructure much poorer.
Life is also much richer now than before and much freer. Decentralization, the guiding impulse of economic reform, has left a country that is under-regulated rather than over-regulated, and in transition and open to change. The cradle-to-grave, strictly controlled society that formed our image of China is largely gone, and it has been replaced by a multitude of opportunities to create wealth and happiness.
While Chinese have just as many differing opinions about their government as Americans do about theirs--and they express those views quite freely now--Chinese are very proud of the country they are creating. They admire America, but they are not overly concerned with us. Chinese, particularly those in the post-1980 generation, follow global events through the Internet and the media, but are much more interested in what is happening in China. Adept with cellphones and the Internet, no longer are they dependent solely on the government for their information about the world.
China now has a sophisticated cultural scene that is deeply influenced by Asian cultural trends but not by those in the U.S. A Korean artist, Rain, is the most popular singer in China; Japanese singer Ayumi Hamasaki is a huge star; Shanghai TV celebrity Zhao Wei, China's "little swallow" of TV fame, is a fashion icon; and dozens of other local and Asian celebrities whose names rarely, if ever, appear in our press dominate their consciousness. They are only dimly aware of American cultural icons.
American and Chinese views of China are radically different--though we often assume that "they think just like us." While Americans assumed that the Tibetan protests were justified and the Chinese reaction was not, many Chinese thought that their government should have been much tougher. Chinese were appalled when Tibetans went on a rampage, burning Chinese stores and killing Chinese.
Chinese reflexively assume that Tibet and other "minority" territories belong to China, and they do not understand why we might believe that their minorities are oppressed. Chinese are baffled by foreign protests in favor of Tibetan independence, and outraged when foreign demonstrators interfere with the Torch Relay, or when a Frenchman tries to wrest the torch from a Chinese para-olympian in a wheelchair. We either do not see the genuine outrage or we believe that is artificial.
For U.S. business to succeed in China, we need to understand the sensibilities of the Chinese in their own right, whether we agree or not. For their part, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games could be the vehicle through which we begin to see and are able to create an environment in which we can work with China for a long time to come.
Lee Sands, managing director of Sierra Asia Partners, served as chief U.S. Trade Negotiator with China under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.