The true muscle of ChinaChina’s rise on the global stage in the 21th century coincides with its accomplishments at Olympics games. It leapfrogged in medal tallies with each round. The country maintained fourth place in the 1990s after the United States, Russia and Germany. In 2000 in Sydney, it overtook Germany, and in 2004 in Athens, it elbowed aside Germany, taking home 32 gold medals and trailing closely behind the American team’s 36. In 2008, China actually hosted the Summer Games in Beijing, flaunting its newfound economic as well as sports might in a quintessential showy way with an exorbitant spectacle. Aided by its home advantage, massive funding and a giant roster, it snatched up an unmatchable 51 gold medals and first place, humbling the U.S. team’s 36.
The Beijing Olympics was an extravaganza the Chinese threw to dazzle the global community and celebrate its newfound global status. The Chinese looking down on Americans from the medal podium was a symbolic message and prediction of what they hope to attain on the broader global stage. One day, China aims to become the world’s top country. Five years prior to the hosting of Olympics, Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed before his people at home and outside a national goal of pursuing a peaceful ascent. The Chinese rise will be aimed to promote global peace and harmony, not to make a threat. In medal counts, the Chinese have accomplished what they aimed to do.
In London, the Chinese are in a neck-and-neck race with the Americans for the No. 1 place in the medal count. The Chinese flag is hauled several times during the day in and out of fields around London. The Chinese have been outperforming other nationals in unexpected fields like swimming and fencing. In sports, size does indeed matter.
The accomplishment in London will be meaningful for the Chinese in many ways. London was a kind of control tower for imperialistic expeditions that led to a shameful chapter in Chinese history. To continue its opium trade, the British waged war against the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese were easily defeated by the modern British Navy and were forced to sign a series of unequal treaties granting indemnity to Britain, the opening of five ports and sovereignty of Hong Kong Island. The second Opium War brought more humiliation to the once-powerful Qing Dynasty: occupation of Beijing and the symbolic burning of the Summer Palace by a small Anglo-French military force. A Chinese farmers’ rebel group, the Boxers, fought against foreign imperialism and Christianity, but were wiped out by military cooperation among allies from eight nations: Britain, Russia, Germany, France, the U.S., Italy, Austria and Japan.
In the London Olympics, all members of that eight-nation alliance except for the U.S. lag far behind China. Chinese athletes proved that their Beijing performance was not an illusion or due to home-team advantages. In sports as well as economics, China is a formidable contender to the U.S. China is no longer the invalid that allowed itself to be walked over by the Western powers and Japan. Today’s China is a military, sports and economic powerhouse loaded with cash and enjoying a new heyday.
Chinese power and influence has spread across the Pacific and Atlantic. It tops in population and land size, heavily armed with missiles and nuclear weapons, and sits on top of a pile of gold medals. But mightiness does not make a country great. Gold and cash do not measure the maturity of a civilization. Along with material wealth, spiritual elements like justice and human rights make a great nation or civilization.
In the realms of justice and human rights, China remains dubious. When the South Korean warship sank in March 2010 while on patrol, 46 sailors drowned. Evidence pointed to Pyongyang. China, however, invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to Beijing a few weeks later in a grand ceremony despite international condemnation of the attack. When the United Nations addressed the issue, Beijing refused to believe the international investigation or back any punishment against North Korea. Instead of practicing justice as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it was an advocate for a terrorist country.
While the Chinese demonstrated their prowess in sports in London, a South Korean human rights activist in Seoul exposed an entirely different manner in which the Chinese exercise their muscles. Kim Young-hwan, who was arrested in China for trying to help North Korean refugees, claimed that he was brutally tortured by Chinese security officials during captivity. The torture included electric shocks. Other captives testified they were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured by Chinese guards.
Allegations of torture can seriously undermine China’s ambition to become a superpower. China should know that population, economic size, a space program and sports medals won’t get it to that place. It should ask itself whether it wants to be a genuine global leader or a second-rate money bag.