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The 2008 Summer Olympic Games are showcasing the “New China” to the world. The last thirty years have seen tremendous changes in China – economically, socially and politically. Anthony Saich is Daewoo professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. He has been engaged with Chinese culture and politics for more than 30 years, and serves as the Changjiang Scholar at Tsinghua University.
Q: The Chinese government has spent more than $40 billion preparing to host the Olympic Games. Why are these Games such an important event for China?
Saich: The Chinese leadership sees holding the Olympics as a clear symbol that China has emerged as a global player of significant importance and they tried very hard to win the right to host the games. I think they see it as a sign of the country having emerged as a powerful economic force and, increasingly, as a player of cultural influence. China’s leaders feel that these games will cement the achievements they feel they’ve made over the last thirty years.
If you look back historically at Japan, Mexico, and South Korea, they saw hosting the Olympic Games as a very significant milestone in their development as modern countries and as an expression of what they saw as their domestic achievements towards a global audience. So I think the Chinese have been very happy to use the games to promote internationally and domestically what they feel are their achievements. They’ve linked it to a sense of patriotism and a sense of pride amongst many Chinese nationals who I think feel justifiably proud to be hosting the games on this occasion.
Q: China’s environmental and political challenges will receive added scrutiny due to the intense media coverage during the Games. How are the country and the government dealing with these challenges?
Saich: Environmentally, there are short-term and long-term challenges. Obviously, what the leadership is most focused on at the moment is just the short-term challenge of making sure that Beijing is not so polluted that it adversely affects the stamina events. They’ve closed down a number of factories, they’ve stopped a lot of the building work around Beijing; and they’re trying to restrict traffic flows where a lot of the pollution comes from. But I think many people are questioning whether this is too little, too late.
I think the more important set of environmental issues, though, beyond the Olympics, is what the relationship will be between China’s spectacular economic growth and its future development. Environmental pollution affects not just China but plays into global warming and acidic rain in neighboring countries.
China actually has a very good set of environmental legislation. The problem really is with conflicting incentives between the national government and local governments that encourage many local governments to maintain their polluting industries. So on one level, simply implementing the laws they have on the books would be a tremendous help with cleaning up the environment. Secondly, despite international perception, many Chinese enterprises are now adopting cutting-edge, environmentally-sound technologies. Certainly China’s citizens are aware of the increasing cost of environmental degradation and pollution, so this has become a very live issue in China.
Politically, I don’t think what’s taking place around the Olympics is going to affect the long-term trajectory of development in China. The Olympics has become defined as an event which summarizes national pride and the overriding concern is with questions of security.
The Chinese definition of security in that context is broader than would perhaps be acceptable to us. It goes beyond the question of just physical security for the games to entail security in the sense of making sure that China’s reputation is not tarnished. The Chinese leadership doesn’t want to have people demonstrating, or foreign journalists looking at some of the dark sides of reforms, some of the inequities, some of the brutalities that are being committed by local governments. Once something becomes defined in terms of security, the security forces take over and they have their own logic of action. I think the visceral reaction is to shut down anything that might be a problem.
That obviously brings China into conflict with some of the Western norms around reporting and what reporters would expect to be able to cover and expect to be able to see while they’re in China. I don’t think it should have surprised China – people have been warning China for a long time that holding the games would mean that not only attention focused on the sport but also attention focused on China itself, with investigative reporters wanting to provide coverage worldwide. I think they’ve found this quite difficult to cope with.
Q: You have witnessed China’s amazing economic growth and cultural change over the past thirty years. What has surprised you most about it?
Saich: I think just quite simply that the changes have kept coming. When I first went to China as a student it was towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was an unbelievably drab city; everybody wore blue. Many of the clichés were true: the restaurants closed at six in the evening; there was nowhere to go and get a drink; there was nowhere to really let your hair down and have fun except in the foreign diplomatic compounds. I think if anybody had asked me whether in 30 years time you would see this progress, I would have suggested that they were insane.
Just the mere fact that that reform has kept going I think is astonishing. China is really going through multiple changes that we in the west have taken perhaps a century or more to digest: from being an overwhelming rural country to now a predominately urbanized country. They’re de-industrializing their old Soviet style industry while at the same time trying to build up a biopharmacy base and trying to get into high tech areas. They’re also dealing with the challenges of shifting from a very young to a very aging population. So I think what surprises me most is the capacity of both the citizenry and the political apparatus to absorb the phenomenal range and pace of changes.
Q: We’ve been hearing about a new sense of national pride among young people in China. And though university students today may admire the bravery of their counterparts who protested for democracy in 1989, Chinese students now are not necessarily sympathetic to that struggle. Can you tell us something about this?
Saich: I think for any young person in China – and by that I’m talking people, say 35 and under – they’ve really seen nothing but progress in China in terms of economic advancements and personal freedoms that they can enjoy and the kind of cultural diversity that exists in China.
In terms of students in university, we have to remember they are the elite of the system. They really are the people that benefited most strongly from reforms. So much of what happened during the Cultural Revolution, or even as late as the student-led protests in 1989, seems like prehistory to them. I think many young people have a strong sense of pride in what China has achieved and are often somewhat perplexed by the criticism from the international community around questions related to China’s political system.
It’s a very complex set of issues, though. I think what is happening is that whereas perhaps in the 1980s many were attracted to a caricature of western democracy and liberalism, many of the young people today – because of the tremendous growth and progress within the Chinese economy – are much more interested in looking back at their own indigenous traditions and what might be a Chinese form of political reform rather than solely relying on the West.
But, I think there’s another important aspect underlying this, and that’s the question of what was it that Chinese people were being promised markets would bring? A lot of people in the 1980s were arguing that if you had free markets you would get, eventually, more accountability; you’d have a rational economy; you’d have all people being lifted up; you’d have greater transparency, and so forth. And I think for many who’ve become disillusioned with western models of development, rightly or wrongly, they would argue that no, that’s not what the markets and the influence of western thought brought us. It’s actually brought us huge inequalities; it’s brought us market failures in areas such as health. It’s actually increased the levels of corruption. And I think that has led to a process with a number of intellectuals turning away from looking at models in the West to reexamine and explore some of their own historical legacies. Now, the lessons they’ve drawn may or may not be correct, but I don’t think that’s the most important issue. That’s often the way that they’ve interpreted these issues: that increasing marketization, increasing interaction with the West didn’t produce the utopia that some people had promised them during the reform period.
Q: What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for China as it continues to grow and develop as a world power?
Saich: There are practical issues and there are systemic issues. If we look at some of the practical challenges first, there is the question of effective urbanization. When China plans to move from 300 to 500 million people off the land and into new and urban environments by 2020, that’s just a stunning challenge: to meet the demands in terms of physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, schools, healthcare, and so forth.
However, if it’s conducted successfully it will resolve some of the big challenges that China’s currently facing in terms of the inequalities that have arisen as part of the reform program. Many of those inequalities relate to the difference between life in the urban centers and life for those left behind in the countryside. And secondly, we’ve already mentioned the enormous environmental challenges that China faces. If it keeps growing at eight, nine, 10 percent, consuming increasing amounts of oil, requiring increasing amounts of raw products and natural resources without environmental destruction and without consumer price rise increases, it could be destabilizing.
But last and not least, I think the overall challenge for China is modernizing its state structure and finding a political infrastructure that matches its modern society and reformed economy. China needs to produce political solutions that can deal with the challenges of accountability and the interests of a rising middle class that seeks greater representation and will want to represent their views perhaps a bit more forcefully as China continues through its reform process.
Related to that is the challenge of providing an effective moral guidance for the kind of society China wants to be in the future. I think the leadership has seen hosting the Olympic Games as part of that process so far as trying to build national pride and trying to produce unity of purpose amongst the Chinese people to galvanizes them in order to keep moving forward on the reform path.
Interviewed by Doug Gavel and Molly Lanzarotta on August 5, 2008.