BEIJING — China is on track to displace the United States 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.
The world we are familiar with, dominated by America 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. When angry, they may even insult each other as “turtle’s eggs.”
During the rise of the West, Chinese culture constantly had to adapt. 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 America, 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 American aircraft carrier groups.
President 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 United States, and Bush won enormous good will from the Chinese people 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 behavior out of China’s leaders.
When the Chinese government sentences two frail women in their late 70s to labor 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-U.S. relations today isn’t the ambassador for either country, but Yao Ming, the basketball player — and David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, is second. The biggest force for democratization isn’t the Group of 7 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 hard-liners during the Tiananmen democracy movement. The guards who monitor him 24/7 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 hard-liners 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.