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What the Olympics will Mean for China
Dr. Charles Desnoyers
B.A. Villanova University, 1975
M.A. Villanova University, 1979
Ph.D. Temple University, 1988
Historically, the last century and a half, roughly speaking, have marked China's low point--with the final humiliation of the Qing Dynasty by foreign powers in 1900 following sixty years of imperialist pressure--to the present emergence of the market-driven People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a world player; perhaps a superpower in the coming decades.
This new resurgence is increasingly seen as China's "natural" condition: By the young, who remember little of the tumultuous years of war and revolution, and mass mobilization campaigns of the Maoist years, and have known only the recent times of frenetic economic growth; and by the older, historically-minded people, who see things reverting back to China's 2000-year history of economic and technological leadership.
Yet, for this group especially, the Olympics will have tremendous psychological resonance. Anxious to erase the "century of humiliation" at the hands of the West, and to show that China is capable of modernization without excess westernization, the Beijing Olympics will, it is hoped, will show the world that China is a world leader in innovative architecture, planning, and, of course, athletic excellence.
Thus, on one level, the Chinese see the Olympic venue in much the same way as previous hosts have sought to use it to showcase their emergent power: Seoul, most recently; Tokyo in 1964; and most notoriously, Berlin in 1936. The unprecedented media focus on China in general, and Beijing in particular, will, it is hoped, show the world on a far grander scaled than ever before that China is the wave of the future. When I was there in March, the massive efforts at upgrading the infrastructure of China's cities was everywhere evident. I'm not sure of the exact percentage, but somewhere in the neighborhood of a half to two thirds of the world's high-rise construction cranes currently in operation are in China. They are the most prominent feature of the Beijing skyline; a condition made even more dramatic when on returning to Philadelphia I counted only four. Massive attempts are also being made to make the amenities of the areas of interest in the city more tourist-friendly: people are being urged to not litter, to not spit in public places [a time honored Chinese habit], to learn handy English phrases [English is taught in all schools] and urgent efforts are being made to upgrade signage.
This is a particularly acute problem, because poor spelling and bad English grammar are currently endemic to the Chinese cultural sphere. The most egregious example I found [and there are too many to list here] was a large state-highway sign outside of Xian directing tourists to the "Terracotta Worriers." Another badly-needed upgrade in amenities that will no-doubt be much commented on by visitors is in public restrooms. Here, the traditional squat toilet--though in some cases with automatic electronic flushers--is still the norm, a condition bound to excite critical comment among some western sightseers.
Will there be a lasting impact? I would say that certainly the tourist money, world attention, and frenzied infrastructural improvements for the games will have an enormous impact, though it is difficult to say much about its proportionality at this point because of the already frenzied pace of the PRC's double-digit growth. Similarly, China's steadily increasing sense of nationalism is bound to get a boost, especially if there are significant numbers of medals won by its athletes. Less obviously, however, much of this is already underway. Historically, countries that wield great economic power generally tend to gain in military, diplomatic, and cultural power as well. While China has generally not been tremendously aggressive in foreign policy, its very size and power will force it to play a larger diplomatic role, a process that has already begun--witness Chinese leadership in talks on the situation in North Korea. Historians may look back on 2008 as an important signpost marking the opening of the "Chinese Century," the same way that they sometimes have tagged the 20th as "The American Century."
Charles Desnoyers is director of Asian Studies at La Salle University and the author of "A Journey to the East: Li Gui's 'A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe.' "