If you were rightfully thrilled by the TV coverage of the Beijing Olympics on NBC, it was nothing compared with the excitement of the Chinese leadership. It views this $40-billion-plus Olympics as the centerpiece of refurbishing China's national prestige. Every detail of the opening was designed to honor and celebrate China's classical heritage and society, as well as its modern engagement with the world—a sophisticated projection of soft power. Flawless was the message China wished to send, and flawless it was. It began with the opening extravaganza and its complicated choreography and coordination among thousands of participants, and for two weeks it maintained its spectacular originality.
We Americans are thrilled by the performance of the whole U.S. delegation—those members who competed with all their hearts as well as those who won golds. Michael Phelps is our Superman, but how inspiring it was to see Henry Cejudo's reaction after winning a single gold in wrestling. The son of Mexican immigrants was so proud he wept as he draped himself in the stars and stripes.
The Chinese athletes performed splendidly, of course, but the gold the country's leaders were striving for was in the political agenda. They saw the Olympic spectacle as an opportunity to demonstrate that China has regained its national stature and power after the legacy of what it experienced as "a hundred years of national humiliation" at the hands of foreigners.
Humiliated. Chinese schoolchildren have long been indoctrinated to believe that until the Communist victory in 1949 their country was the "sick man of Asia." They learned never to forget the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which gave to Japan Germany's special concessions and extraterritorial status in China. Incidents such as the clash of Chinese and American military aircraft, the Tibetan uprising, the Olympic torch relay, and even the Sichuan earthquake have all featured in a national narrative of a resurgent China defending itself against a hostile world. The humiliation of a hundred years has given way to an ideology of nationalism that nurtures popular resentment of Japan and America. For us the past may be past as we focus on China's awesome capacity to achieve. Not so for the Chinese. For them, the Olympics have been the crowning moment when they could see themselves at last as victor, not as victims. As the former mayor of Beijing put it last year, "We have to have a good Olympics; otherwise, not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors."
For all of China's re-emergence as a great power and an economic dynamo, it is also fragile. China's great leaps forward cannot disguise that it is a poor country that dares not risk the advance in its standard of living. It's the cornerstone on which the legitimacy of the government depends.
Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, understood after the uprising at Tiananmen Square that, for the Communist Party to continue its rule, it had to engineer an enduring prosperity. He began a rapid transformation of the Soviet-style economy to one with "Chinese characteristics." Peasants no longer had to work on collective farms but gained permission to have their own plots and decide their own crops. Then Beijing eliminated the institutions that monitored every detail of daily life, as well as the cradle-to-grave social welfare system, the hallmark of Maoist policy. Government today provides far fewer social services than do most western democracies. Operational control of factories shifted from Communist Party secretaries to factory managers who received incentives to make money. The government sold off most state enterprises to private interests and transformed banks into businesses. Ten million rural businesses underwent complete privatization. The government evolved with a modern tax collection system and discipline over expenses. Public education through ninth grade became universal, and now education brings premium pay in virtually all jobs. Millions moved to urban areas, just like in America in the 19th century. The country opened to unprecedented levels of foreign direct investment and joined the World Trade Organization. A mandatory retirement age for government officials became law, the National People's Congress gained new powers, and control of civil society slackened. The result: More than 250 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty in the past three decades.