Now that the 2008 Summer Olympics have ended, we all know that China has received plenty of criticism and accolades before and during the Olympic games. Rather than rehashing that chronology, I want to focus on the question of where does China go from here? The Christian Science Monitor offers some interesting observations:
The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts. . . .
One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism. . . .
For more than a hundred years, China’s leaders have set themselves the goal of recovering international respect after humiliation at the hands of Europe and the United States in the 19th century. For more than half a century the ruling Communist party has made “standing up to the world” a key plank in its platform. . . .
If China’s leaders decide that their management of the Olympics has earned the country respect, that “offers an opportunity for the Chinese state and the Chinese people to ditch the nationalist narrative of their identity based on shame and humiliation,” says Professor Shambaugh. “Hopefully they can throw all their aggrieved nationalist baggage away and move on like a normal country.”
It is certainly true that ever since the communists came to power, China has had a “chip on its shoulder+ in terms of proving to the rest of the world that they could overcome their “sick man of Asia” image and instead, use their own brand of communism to once again propel China into the rank of international superpower.
Along the way, one of the tactics used by the Chinese has been an intense and often fierce sense of nationalism — reacting defensively to any perceived slight against their country’s image or policies.
As I’ve written about before, perhaps the most recent and prominent example of this nationalism inside the U.S. was the backlash of Chinese students against “anti-Chinese” media portrayals regarding the Olympic torch relay and pro-Tibet demonstrations.
But now that many people from around the world have seen a brighter and more positive side of China, does it mean that the Chinese can let their defenses down somewhat and capitalize on their “softer” image? We’ll have to wait to see how China handles the issues and criticisms that still exist against it, such as human rights and individual freedoms, environmental conservation, and consumer product safety.
Despite their Olympics success, these criticisms will continue to come China’s way, so the ultimate test will be whether China reverts to reacting defensively and nationalistically — or whether they can build on their newfound confidence and status and react in a more gracious and balanced way.
I sincerely hope that it will be the latter — China has many positives going for it now, and it would be a shame if it squanders this newly-earned goodwill by going back to the same authoritarian ways.