[Viewpoint]Riding the Chinese tigerBeijing and Qingdao are already heating up as the 2008 Summer Olympics approaches. Streets are decorated with the slogan, “One World, One Dream,” and the Bird’s Nest, the Beijing National Stadium, is ready for the opening ceremony.
However, the Chinese citizens are feeling the coming of the Olympics mostly through increased security measures.
Security checks at the airports, train stations and subways have become commonplace in Beijing. Large buildings display strongly worded signs like “Blockade Management,” and young sales associates at department stores wear red armbands that read “Security Patrol.” The traffic is controlled with an odd-even license plate number system, and roads have newly painted exclusive lanes with the Olympic flag.
To keep the sky blue, factories around Beijing have stopped operations, and those who came to Beijing from other regions are going back to their hometowns. While the authorities allowed a little room to breathe by permitting some street demonstrations, rallies are restricted to three parks in Beijing.
The impact is spreading to minority ethnic groups and foreign nationals in China. Visa screening is stricter than ever, and anti-terrorism measures have been tightened. North Korean defectors are closely watched, and Beijing is concerned about the aggressive missionary work by Korean Christians. The traditional street cheering of Koreans using gongs and drums is hard to find in Beijing because of the spectator rules. In other words, China is trying as hard to filter out gate crashers as it is to welcome visitors and VIPs.
The sensitivity to safety is elevated by major disasters in the run-up to the Olympics, from the snowstorm and the flooding to the Tibet crisis, the train wreck and the Sichuan earthquake.
Moreover, the peaceful evolution policy of the West, aiming to change China’s stance on human rights, religion and democracy, is aggravating China’s insecurity. In fact, President Bush has even called the American Olympic Athletes “ambassadors of liberty.” A senior scholar I met in Beijing said that the dictionary meanings of “tension” included added pressure, lack of time, lack of competency and elevated excitement, and all these phrases describe today’s China.
A safe Beijing Olympic Games will stabilize Hu Jintao’s regime and give life to the “Great China” that the country longs for.
Whenever a sensitive political issue arose, Mr. Hu went to the populace, turning crises into opportunities by dexterously alternating between push and pull, advancement and regression. He settled the panic of the earthquake in a few weeks even though the disaster initially made it uncertain whether China could go ahead and host the Olympics or not.
Also, the Chinese themselves were surprised as $6.6 billion have been raised to help the victims, and countless people volunteered. The Chinese people were no longer the heap of loose sand described by Sun Yat-sen. Their pride made them willingly submit to inconvenience for new friends visiting from afar. They were not accustomed to expressing their inner emotions, but they practiced smiles to host a Smile Olympics.
Of course, there are different forecasts for the future of China after the Games. The Olympics might bring a paradox of success as the proliferation of liberty and democracy destroys socialism.
Or, China might turn into an assertive nation striving for world hegemony after confirming its power through the Olympics. Perhaps China will turn cooperative, following international norms and taking responsibility in international society. These are theories of destruction, aggression and opportunity.
In reality, China faces a growing social gap, unemployment, an agricultural crisis, ethnic complications, riots, financial instability and a bubble economy.
On the other hand, China has a $1.3 trillion consumer market and enormous potential. Beijing boasts a national management capacity and market control to recognize and respond to risks. The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. found that 86 percent of Chinese agree with national policy, and the support of the people is a new power.
If China passes the test of safely hosting of the Olympics, it will emerge as a major world power.
Therefore, Seoul needs to escape from the niche diplomacy between vigilance and utility and reconsider its China strategy from scratch. We need to transcend the idea of considering the relationship with China as a variable dependent on Korea-U.S. relations and expand our imagination.
Instead of being swept up by the threat of China propagated by the West, we need to prepare a strategy that will allow us to ride the emerging tiger. This will be the beginning of a strategic partnership with China.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.