Will ‘rebirth’ of China level the field?


HONG KONG — At precisely eight minutes past 8 p.m. on Aug. 8 — the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008 — the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, this year’s summer Olympics, will officially open in Beijing. It is widely seen as China’s debut party after an eclipse of a couple of centuries.

The Chinese Communist Party’s choice of opening date is significant. The atheistic regime is pragmatically enlisting the help of numerology to ensure the Games’ success. The number eight, to Chinese, signifies prosperity — the country’s goal since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping became China’s leader.

Gone is the revolutionary ethos of Mao Zedong, China’s leader from the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 until his death in 1976. Mao called for constant class struggle. Today’s leaders want a xiaokang shehui (a society of small prosperity or a comfortable society) in which everyone is comfortably off.

While China under Mao was internationally isolated, with tiny Albania its closest friend, Dengist China reached out to all while keeping a low profile, focusing on growth. Now, 30 years later, China is ready to step out into the world in earnest.

That feeling has been increasing since 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to Beijing after a century and a half. Then, in 1999, Portugal returned Macao. Since then, no part of China has been under foreign rule. (Taiwan, which remains apart, is not under Western rule.)

For millennia, China was the world’s most advanced civilization, producing such inventions as paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. But, dazzled by its own brilliance, the Chinese empire closed itself off from the rest of the world. In 1793, when King George III sent Lord Macartney to propose trade, the Qianlong Emperor dismissed the idea: “I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

But less than 50 years later, British victory in the Opium War forced China to cede Hong Kong, triggering a century of humiliation. It is no coincidence that when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic, he announced: “The Chinese people have stood up.”

China remained poor, however, because of Mao’s political campaigns. Today, China possesses the world’s fourth-largest economy and, this year, may well move up a notch by overtaking Germany.

But all this growth was achieved at a stupendous price. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. The air is so bad that athletes have been debating whether they should wear masks during the Olympics. China’s rivers and lakes are also poisoned.

Despite China’s arrival as an economic superpower, it has not been included in the most industrially advanced Group of Eight, which comprises the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and Russia, largely because the country is not a democracy and has a poor human-rights record.

The Chinese government often says that human rights have never been better in China, and as far as this goes, this statement is true. The government has withdrawn from vast areas of people’s private lives.

Now individuals can decide for themselves what to study, what jobs to take, who to marry and whether to travel abroad. But in the political realm, the Communist Party will not stand for any opposition, especially if it’s organized.

China is also accused of protecting other repressive countries. The actress Mia Farrow has dubbed the coming Games the “Genocide Olympics,” ostensibly because of Beijing’s support for Sudan, accused of genocide in its Darfur region.

Beijing vigorously denies such charges and asserts that the Games should not be politicized. When China first sought to host the games in the early 1990s, it promised that they would lead to a more open China. Beijing has instituted relaxed rules for foreign journalists from 2007 until after the Olympics. There has been no noticeable improvement in human rights generally.

The government is not alone in seeking a bigger role for China. The Chinese public largely agrees. A 2006 opinion survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that “the Chinese express unreserved enthusiasm for China playing an active role in the world and increasing its power and influence.”

When China first made its bid to host the Olympics, its intention was to break through the diplomatic isolation that followed the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

The 2008 Olympics have assumed even greater significance — nothing less than the rebirth of a country. China is ready to take its place as a respected and responsible member of the international community. And the world at large is bracing for this epochal change.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com.)