NEW YORK – Almost everyone in the world who watched the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was impressed by China’s preparations, the acumen of the Chinese in running such a complex and challenging event, and the rich harvest of medals – especially gold medal – that Chinese athletes won.
It was abundantly evident in the run-up to the Games how important it was to Chinese everywhere to show themselves to advantage. One got a sense of this when China’s reputation and the Games’ status came under attack during the Tibetan demonstrations and protests against the Olympic torch as it made its tortured progress around the world.
But, when all was said and done, through what turned out to be often Draconian controls, China pulled off quite a feat! Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the British will care as much, or go to such extremes, for the London Olympics in 2012.
For many years, especially since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, China has felt a deficit of global respect. This feeling has deeply troubled its leaders and filled its people with a sense that, despite all their economic progress, their proper place in the world was not only eluding them, but being denied to them by the endless criticism of the so-called “developed world.”
For the last two decades, Chinese leaders have been diligently trying to build a new edifice in order to gain some of that missing respect. This made a successful Olympic Games, when all the world would be watching, an urgent matter.
But, now that the Games have ended, Chinese leaders cannot quite say, “Mission accomplished.”
While China’s achievement is worthy of genuine esteem, its efforts to gain a full measure of international respect and real “great power” status will not succeed until it matches its new economic and military power with a certain essential moral force. That, in turn, requires a society and a leadership that seeks to be exemplary in all ways that make human beings more human, including respect for truthfulness, openness, tolerance, and people’s right to disagree with their government.
I fear that China’s leaders and people will continue to feel a certain gnawing, inchoate sense of deficiency and incompleteness in their quest for global respect until they find the strength to begin addressing the crucial, but elusive, issue of making China an ethical, as well as an economic and military, power. For a country steeped in millennia of Confucianism, the need for ethical leadership should be clear.
To fully address the question of the moral and ethical base of a new form of Chinese governance, China’s government and its people must be able to look back freely and come to terms with their recent history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the events of 1989, Tibet, and other sensitive issues. They must also freely be able to discuss the future and what kind of society they wish to see rise from the ashes of Mao’s revolution.
I make these somewhat critical observations about China not with any sense of moral superiority or a wish to relieve myself of the responsibility to level the same critique at my own country’s recent failures. As most of the world knows, America’s quest to maintain its claim to the title of “greatness,” has, of late, also been elusive.
Arriving from different staring points, both the United States and China now find themselves confronting a similar challenge: restoring global trust and respect. Their success inevitably requires directly confronting their evident moral failures.
If many of those same viewers who have been impressed by China’s successes in Beijing now also find themselves recoiling at the idea of a stronger and more prideful China, that is understandable. For strength unalloyed by checks and balances – and by a capacity for self-critical reflection about the rightness and wrongness of state action – can be unnerving. Many Americans, too, have recently had to learn this.
One hopes that China will derive a new measure of respect and self-confidence from these astounding Games. But one also hopes that China’s successes will enable its leaders to feel strong enough to begin looking honestly at China’s recent past in a more critical way. Such forthrightness is not easy for any country. But, having completed such an important step forward, China must now find new, more humanistic ways to continue to re-invent itself.