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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The real challenge for China: what does it do after the Games?

August 10, 2008

Emile Hokayem
The National (Abu Dhabi)
August 7, 2008

Rarely has an Olympic Games been set a more ambitious challenge than
the one facing China today: a demonstration of power, confidence and
success after traumatic decades of foreign domination, heavy-handed
Communist rule and a painful transition to market capitalism. The
China on display in the coming weeks will radiate with pride – "an
historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation," as
the official media puts it – and will expect proper recognition from
the world. And, judging from the heads of state making it to the
opening ceremony tonight and the huge number of expected viewers, it
will get it.

There are other, less propagandistic ways of looking at China's
Olympic moment: the coronation of three decades of stunning but
unequal development; the illustration of how economic progress does
not necessarily bring dramatic political change; the affirmation of
Chinese global assertiveness, both positive and negative; and perhaps
the beginning of a new phase where a "normalised" China, reassured
about its role in the world, focuses on consolidating the gains of
the past 30 years and commences to address the environmental and
political challenges that could complicate its development.

To emphasise these other readings is by no means China-bashing. The
days of demeaning China are over: in its neighbourhood, the scare of
Red China has been replaced by strong economic interdependence; on
the global stage, China is no longer perceived as an ideological,
revolutionary force but rather as a pragmatic player that expresses
its differences in mild ways. The world has made its peace with the
reality that China's political, economic and cultural power will be a
staple of international politics.

But not all uncertainty has been lifted, and the question about what
type of China the world will be dealing with in coming decades is
looming large in everyone's mind. China's sheer size means its
challenges are as gigantic as its opportunities. Will China's boom
suck up the world's resources and create new rivalries? Will China be
able to sustain high rates of growth? If not, will the increasingly
visible inequalities morph into widespread social and economic dislocation?

Will China manage to solve its many internal challenges (including
Tibet and Xinjiang) or will central authority succumb to centrifugal
forces? Will the 21st century be not just Asian but Chinese?
Ultimately, will the China of tomorrow be strong or weak?

In truth, the Chinese -- government and society alike -- are
increasingly, if reluctantly, engaged in this discussion. The demands
of globalisation, from which China has benefited so much, are
exposing its structural weaknesses. Popular demand for transparency,
participation in decision making, and accountability is rising. The
same awareness that pushed the Chinese to protest outside French
malls after the stormy journey of the Olympic flame on French soil,
fuelled the grassroots movement that protested about the government's
handling of the Sichuan earthquake.

And herein lies the real challenge for China: whether and how to
recognise that its future trajectory will largely depend on a new
social contract between state and society and not on a blind belief
in the ability of government to regulate every aspect of life. China
is certainly not unique in this regard. Many developing countries are
going through similar processes of change. But what is unique is the
magnitude of China's transformation and its capacity to affect global
dynamics. After all, it is not fortuitous that talk of a "Chinese
model" is so prevalent in the international discourse.

But this model, too, demands refining. If China could soon overtake
the US as the largest economy, its status as an economic giant needs
to be consolidated. China ranks 34th on the World Economic Forum's
Global Competitiveness Report, 66th on the AT Kearney/Foreign Policy
Globalization Index, and 104th by the International Monetary Fund for
income per capita. Of course, investment levels, business prospects
and the dynamism of the population guarantee lasting economic
opportunities but as the government itself is keen to stress,
complacency is the greatest enemy of performance.

Nor should the celebration of China's successes hide the reality of
its immediate ills. As the notorious air pollution in Beijing shows,
the rush to industrialise, produce energy and build infrastructure
has taken a vast toll on the country's environment, to the point
where several studies now predict that China's growth will suffer
adversely. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in
China; the number of cars is shooting up; access to clean water is
problematic; deserts are advancing; fertile land is retreating. Even
if the notion that developing countries should not be punished for
the damage caused by developed nations has truth to it, China must
realise that its leadership by example is badly needed.

The other set of concerns relate to the role China seeks to carve for
itself on the international scene and whether it will act as a
responsible stakeholder in the current system, as Robert Zoellick,
the current president of the World Bank once put it. China is proving
decisive in dealing with North Korea's nuclear concerns, but is
increasingly criticised for its silence on Burma and Darfur,
treatment of the Tibetan crisis and its own human rights record. The
Chinese should not misinterpret the emphasis put on these issues; in
fact, expecting better from China is a reflection of the status the
country has achieved.

So while the world applauds China's masterful organisation of the
Games, it will also watch how it navigates change.
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