China, the Olympics, and Global Leadership

The whole world, it seems, views China as the next great global power. A trip to Beijing does little to dispel that impression. Out of the welter of dust, noise, welders’ sparks, flotillas of cement mixers and construction cranes, the setting for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is taking shape. A visitor feels inconsequential in the chaotic vastness of this epic undertaking.

But looking down on the scene from the half-finished Morgan Centre, the luxury apartment complex (where annual rents are $800,000) and seven-star hotel that is arising beside the Olympic site, one is awestruck not only by the project’s grandeur, but by its design daring. Below, like some latticed popover, is the Herzog & de Meuron-designed “birds nest” Olympic Stadium. Beside it is the stunning “water cube,” or Aquatics Center, of Chinese/Australian design.

It is hardly surprising that after the Games, the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders plan to vacate their retro pavilions in Zhongnanhai, the cloistered compound beside the Forbidden City, to move to a new “campus” adjacent to the Olympic Green, China’s new power center. China’s leaders view the Olympics not only as a national celebration, but also as the greatest national coming-out party in history.

Feeling the Promethian energy unleashed in Bejing, it is easy to believe in China’s aspirations to restore itself to a position of global wealth and power. Indeed, over the past half-century, when the Chinese have put their minds to it, they have always demonstrated extraordinary fortitude and resolution, whether in embracing Mao’s revolution or in the equally unfettered way in which they are realizing the economic counter-revolution unleashed by Deng Xiaoping.