[Viewpoint]Competing with ChinaIt was a magnificent, overwhelmingly lavish saga. The opening of the Beijing Olympic Games reproduced the glory of the ancient Chinese empire. With the flashy fireworks, the 3,000 pupils of Confucius, the voyage of Zheng He’s fleet, the Silk Road and Emperor Qin’s terra-cotta army, the long history of the continent and the essence of its mystical culture were vividly illustrated.
I remembered the first time I visited Bejing in the early summer of 1990. Tiananmen Square was full of bicycles and private cars were a rarity. Men walked in the streets shirtless. Cultural assets still bore the damage from the Cultural Revolution that took place from 1966 until 1976. Vigorous slogans about opening the country’s doors lapped over shabby remnants of backwardness.
I remember a Chinese scholar in his fifties I met during the visit. With mixed feelings of loss and envy, he said, “China has regressed several decades because of the Cultural Revolution. Close-minded nationalism and the extreme, cruel insanity of the left-wingers pushed the country backward. “During that time, Korea has advanced and its prosperity is dazzling. It is no wonder Korea is better off than China. It is amazing Korea hosted the Olympic Games. It is the first time in the thousands of years of Korea-China relations that China is behind Korea.”
The decade after 1988, the time bookended by Korea hosting the games and the Asian financial crisis, was an exceptional time in the history of Korea and China. During this period, most Koreans strutted in Beijing. They may have felt small before the grandeur of the Forbidden City, comparing it with the puny Gyeongbok Palace of the Joseon Dynasty, but that was a fleeting feeling.
The Chinese wanted to learn from Korea’s so-called Miracle of the Han River. They acknowledged Korea’s achievements in its modern history - industrialization and democratization - even more than Koreans did. And all this in Beijing, the city where our ancestors had paid tribute as envoys of a vassal state. It was special, in a subtle way, to feel somewhat superior to China in those days.
However, Korea’s comeback decade is now history. It had never happened before and will probably never happen again. Korea is now once again as conscious of its giant neighbor China as it used to be. The opening ceremony of the Beijing games boasted China’s new superpower status. The great country looms beside us, 30 years after Deng Xiaoping led China to reform and opening.
With its ambition and achievements, China is catching up with us threateningly. China offers us opportunities, but applies pressure on us at the same time. It is our biggest export market and our most popular investment destination. China’s National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, symbolizes the nation as a nest of opportunity.
China is also a diplomatic and military powerhouse. The country has a strong position in the six-party talks regarding the North Korean nuclear issue. China’s Northeast Project continues to cause conflict over the history of the region. If something happens suddenly and unexpectedly to North Korea’s Kim Jong-il regime, we will have to compete against China and the competition won’t be easy.
Korea failed to use its comeback period to build an engine for a new start. We didn’t really find the true meaning of the era because the leadership of Korea was incompetent and had no imagination about history. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was unskilled in diplomacy, causing Korea to be left behind in the region. The former administration’s proposal to become a mediator in Northeast Asia was a pathetic idea produced by sloppy nationalism. In the international order, only strong countries enjoy the role of mediator. When Korea proposed to take the role, the four strong countries surrounding us scoffed at the idea.
The proposal caused serious side effects. The Korea-U.S. alliance was shaken and the United States and Japan became much closer. Meanwhile, China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula has grown stronger. However, we still haven’t learned from the experience. As shown during the recent stretch of candlelight vigils, close-minded nationalism is still widespread.
The main characters of Korea’s comeback victory have retreated from the front lines. However, they still have duties. They must pass down the skills and experience gained from that era. President Lee Myung-bak’s aides should have a good perception of history. Most of the presidential aides have just gone with the flow without having seriously thought about history and the nature of our times. Older veterans should also teach the youth to be sympathetic about our history. The youth should learn that open-minded nationalism gave us the power to surpass China once, and that it is difficult to exist peacefully in Northeast Asia unless we make our country rich and strong.
Only then will we be able to have friendly relations and exchanges with China in a confident and refined manner. As China is our biggest trade partner, our opportunities will broaden and the foundation for mutual prosperity will only then be strengthened.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon