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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The global centre of gravity shifts east

January 16, 2008

Lindsey Hilsum
New Statesman
14 January 2008

Beijing wants to give the impression of a "harmonious society", yet the
gap between rich and poor is growing

China has seen nothing like it since the Tang dynasty. That was the last
time the country enjoyed rising prosperity, was courted by thousands of
foreign envoys, and extended its global power. The 2008 Olympic Games
are often described as China's "coming-out party", but to many it's more
of a comeback, albeit one that has taken nearly 1,300 years.

Tang poetry and painting are still admired and studied, but the emblems
of China's modern renaissance are architectural. The new Olympic Stadium
is a "bird's nest" of titanium and glass. The nearly finished China
Central Television building comprises two towers leaning into each other
and joined near the top like a huge Aids ribbon, while the National
Theatre - which opened in September - is a giant, golden egg laid next
to Tiananmen Square. Only modern China would allow such a proliferation
of experimental styles.

Under the greatest of the dynasty's emperors, Tang Xuanzong, China
enjoyed 40 years of prosperity. This year, it celebrates three decades
of "Reform and Opening Up", the policy that Deng Xiaoping introduced
after Mao Zedong died. To say it has worked is an understatement: last
year China contributed more to global growth than the US, the first time
any country has done so since the 1930s. No longer is this simply a
manufacturing economy - China is buying shares in big international
companies, such as the Blackstone venture capital group and Morgan Stanley.

Such is China's determination to showcase its success, and so plentiful
is its cash, that the budget for the Olympics is expected to reach $40bn
- twice what London plans to spend in 2012. Yet its modern economy
coexists with ancient beliefs: the year was chosen in part because of
the auspicious date. The word ba means "eight", and its homophone
(similar sound, different character) means "to prosper". The Communist
Party takes its superstition seriously, so the Games will start at eight
minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth

But numerology cannot mitigate all of China's problems. Beijing wants to
give the impression of a "harmonious society", yet the gap between rich
and poor is growing. With food-price inflation nudging 20 per cent, some
fear protests. The heavy, grey pollution that squats like a toad over
the capital has caused the president of the International Olympic
Committee, Jacques Rogge, to talk of delaying the marathon.

The government's confidence seems brittle. The dissident writer Hu Jia
was arrested for "subverting state authority" in late December. Hu Jia
sees the problems of the poor, those affected by environmental problems
and people with Aids as indivisible, and this government cannot abide
anyone who joins the dots. A new decree banning all but state-owned
video-sharing sites will hit those showing any anti-government footage.

No protests will be tolerated during the Games themselves. The
authorities are investing millions in security cameras, ostensibly to
prevent crime but also, presumably, to spot any demonstrations against
official policy.

China should be able to conduct diplomacy from a position of strength,
but it continues to spit and scratch like a cornered cat. Its hold on
Tibet is unassailable, but relations with Germany deteriora ted after
the chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama in September. A
recent article in the China Daily ludicrously suggested that Tibet's
spiritual leader was responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the
Tokyo Underground. Rhetoric against Taiwan is growing shrill, too, as
the government in Taipei prepares for a March referendum on
independence. In effect, Taiwan is a separate country, but Beijing
insists that it is still a province. Only 24 small states rec ognise
Taiwan, but China refuses to rest until the whole world accepts that it
has sovereignty.

Historical analogies have their limits. Unlike Emperor Tang Xuanzong,
President Hu Jintao will probably not lose power because of an obsession
with a concubine. In 747, the emperor abolished the death penalty;
today, China trumpets a decision to replace the firing squad with lethal
injection. The global centre of gravity may shift east in 2008, but
China's new Golden Age is not yet upon us.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News
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