After the Games, China stays on world's stage

By Lee Hamilton
Aug 25 2008

 The 2008 Beijing Olympics opened on Aug. 8 with a spectacular and dazzling display. It included a cast of thousands, extraordinary synchronized performances by drummers and dancers, fireworks, and a 9–year–old girl's performance of “Ode to the Motherland,” a patriotic Chinese song that actually featured another girl's pre–recorded voice.

The combination of a technically eye–popping opening ceremony and impressive execution of the Olympic Games demonstrates the lengths to which China went to ensure the world saw the best it had to offer and paid China its due respect. China won more gold medals than any other country and its leadership sought such an outcome to be the world's focus for two weeks — not Darfur, Tibet or democracy. This was a coming–out party of unprecedented size and scope.

Of course, China's meteoric rise since the 1970s is no secret. In the last 30 years, economic growth has lifted 680 million Chinese out of poverty. In 2007, China contributed more to global growth than the U.S. It has surpassed the U.S. as a consumer of several key commodities. The Middle Kingdom is even set to overtake the U.S. as the world's top manufacturer in 2009.

Meanwhile, the human–rights situation in China remains troublesome — undemocratic governance, discrimination toward ethnic minorities, with limits on freedom of speech, the press, religion and assembly. China is still an autocratic power, authoritarian, and somewhat brutal, but the rights of the Chinese people have expanded.

Its problems are daunting. Income inequality is growing. Inflation is a threat. The country is rapidly aging. The divide between urban and rural quality of life is vast. Corruption is widespread. Global energy resources to fuel its rapid industrialization are limited. And there are horrendous environmental problems.

The political system limits the free flow of information, lacks the self–correcting mechanisms of democracy, and stifles creativity.

So the government's mission is to preserve stability amid formidable challenges. This task has been particularly burdensome in 2008. An uprising and vicious crackdown in Tibet in March inspired protests around the world, the May earthquake in Sichuan killed more than 50,000, and international outrage over Beijing's ties to the Sudanese government continues.

China's growing military power has caught the eye of the world as well. Its official military budget increased 18 percent to roughly $60 billion in 2008, but experts suspect that the actual figure is twice that amount (though still roughly one–fifth of U.S. defense spending). It has forged ties with odious regimes, like North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran.

Economically, Chinese investment in the U.S. has become essential to financing our national debt, as well as providing capital for American enterprises. China holds $1.76 trillion in foreign reserves, mostly in dollars, a byproduct of a trade imbalance with the U.S. that totaled $256.2 billion in 2007 alone.

The great questions in foreign affairs for this century will involve China: Can its emergence be managed peacefully? Does it want to become a “stakeholder” in the international system, or transform the system and challenge the U.S. in Asia and beyond?

For now, my impression is that China is focused on economic growth, social stability and national unity — not outward aggression.

At the end of the day — on North Korea, energy security, the global economy, and even Iran — we agree with China. It is startling to see China's capacity to allay or aggravate our concerns regarding the economy, energy, the environment and foreign policy.

Treating Beijing as a threat only will guarantee that it becomes one. We should seek an enduring relationship that facilitates China's further integration into the community of nations, while constructively engaging China on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, Darfur, the rule of law, and the freeing of political prisoners.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)