China’s Olympic Charm
China’s 396 Olympians leave the London Olympic Games with 88 medals, the second most of any country – second only to the U.S.
It has been said that the Olympics miss the Cold War rivalry that made the 1972 basketball gold medal game and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” so interesting. Now with the emergence of China as an economic superpower, not to mention a force in the Summer Olympics, America now has its new Ivan Drago .
Yet there is something markedly different about our new rivals.
I, for one, will remember the Chinese sportsmanship – not Chinese excellence – as the enduring memory of these Games. At seemingly every available opportunity, the Chinese Olympic Team demonstrated values we usually associate with being “uniquely American.”
Courtesy. During the Opening Ceremony, Chinese Olympians paraded into London’s Olympic Stadium waving Chinese and British flags, paying homage to the pride the British people had in hosting the Games – a gesture starkly different from one made by the current Republican nominee for president. The Chinese Olympic Team was the only team I noticed make such a tribute.
Grace. The gold medal in Monday’s men’s still rings event seemed to be safely in the hands of Chinese gymnast Chen Yibing after he executed a nearly flawless routine and his chief competition, Brazilian Arthur Zanetti, stumbled on his landing. Yet when Zanetti’s scores appeared, the audience and the usually-fastidious John Tesh-led NBC announcing crew gasped. Zanetti won; Chen would have to settle for silver.
I am not an expert on gymnastics, but the NBC announcers were (why else would we listen to their constant caviling?), and judging from their opinions, Chen had every right to be upset. Instead Chen immediately rose to his feet and, with a smile on his face, shook Zanetti’s hand and nodded his head. Chen was remarkably gracious in defeat when many would have been tempted to throw a chair.
Fortitude. On Tuesday, Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang provided one of the most inspiring moments of the Games after kicking the first barrier of his qualifying heat in the 110-meter hurdle, falling to the ground and suffering a torn Achilles tendon. Liu, a gold medalist in the event in 2004, rose to his foot (singular), and hoped his way around the remaining barriers, stopping to kiss the final hurdle, to cross the finish line. His competitors carried him off the course to a standing ovation.
It is harder to oppose a rising superpower that produces such outstanding ambassadors – and perhaps that’s the point. I cannot tell you to what extent these athletes are acting on the orders of the Communist Party, or to what extent this is simply a genuine reflection of the Chinese people.
I simply note that on the world’s stage, Chinese athletes look nothing like the archetypical “bad guys” that we associated with our former rivals from the U.S.S.R. And regardless of their intentions, we should all marvel at the unity of purpose of the Chinese Olympic Team. Surely many of them understand that a skeptical west is watching, and that any unseemly act caught out television would enflame the west’s conscious or subconscious fear of their country’s ascendancy.
This image of a benevolent rising power is crucial to understanding Chinese ambitions. The Chinese are committed to at least appearing to be a friendly force.
Chinese charm, of course, goes well beyond sports.
Chinese foreign direct investment in the United States and Europe is accelerating precipitously, investing where domestic companies cannot. Chinese FDI in the U.S. is already on pace to make 2012 a record-breaking year. Chinese investors aren’t just investing in the U.S. and Europe, they are doing so without upsetting the local body politics, perhaps recalling the mistakes of the previous foreign investments like the 2005 attempted purchase of Unocol energy corporation.
Taken together, we can begin to see a superpower committing itself to allaying the fears of the west. This is not to say that Chinese behavior is perfect. Neither is this to excuse China for supporting for brutal regimes to support rank short-term economic interests, or its crackdown on human rights.
Perhaps what the sportsmanship of the Chinese Olympic athletes demonstrates is an emerging superpower preparing to lead with humility, or at least one that is aware of the fears of outsiders.
China put its best face forward in London. There’s a lot an emerging superpower can learn from these Chinese athletes. There’s a lot an established superpower can learn from them too.
Thomas L. Day is a graduate of the Truman National Security Project’s Veterans Leadership Academy and the founder of PublicServicePledge.com. You can follow the Public Service Pledge on Twitter at @PSpledge.