By Martin Fletcher (THE TIMES, 23/08/08):
In the magnificent new stadiums of their capital, in front of their fanatical compatriots, China’s Olympians have walloped their American counterparts this past fortnight, capturing 16 more gold medals and ending the global supremacy that US athletes have enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is an outcome that will only deepen the United States’ present funk, with pundits sure to compare China’s inexorable rise with America’s decline, asking when the lines will cross.
The answer is not for a long time – if ever. By almost any measure the US remains in a different league. Its gross domestic product was $13.8trillion last year, dwarfing China’s $3.2 trillion. GDP per capita was $46,000 to China’s $5,300. Of the world’s 30 largest companies, 11 are American and 3 Chinese, according to Fortune magazine.
But what is striking to casual visitors to China, however, is the extent to which its people have adopted the attitudes that made America great – the optimism, dynamism and patriotism, the can-do spirit, the determination to leave the next generation better off than one’s own. In three weeks travelling around China last month, I found a country oozing with confidence.
The converse is also true. For now, at least, an America afflicted by economic recession, plunging house prices, collapsing banks, disastrous foreign ventures and dire political leadership is sunk in malaise.
How would the US have responded to an earthquake like the one that devastated Sichuan province in May? To judge by its response to Hurricane Katrina, not with the spirit, energy and self-reliance of the Chinese.
Throughout the stricken zone I found soldiers, contractors and volunteers clearing rubble, restoring services and erecting vast tracts of temporary housing with astonishing speed. Even more striking were the victims. Far from succumbing to self-pity or despair, or waiting for government assistance, they were striving to rebuild and recover as fast as possible, setting up makeshift shops, restaurants, surgeries and even mini-factories in the rubble of their homes. “The dead are dead. You don’t want to die with them,” said Huoyong Bin, 40, who has lost his wife and father but has reopened his barber shop beneath an awning in what remains of the marketplace of Jiulong village.
In Henan province, in the tiny rural village of Zhoutan, I met the embodiment of what was once called the American Dream but might now be renamed the Chinese Dream.
His name was Zhou Shouheng, 27. He is one of tens of millions of uneducated peasants who have flocked to China’s cities to secure better futures for their families. He works on building sites in Beijing, ten hours a day, seven days a week, returning home twice a year. He makes this sacrifice so that one day he can send his two children to university and they can share in China’s new prosperity.
“I hope they can design great buildings, not just build them like me,” he said, adding that when he sees the fancy apartments and swish cars of wealthy Beijingers it merely inspires him to work still harder.
I also met young Americans who also see China as today’s land of opportunity and had opened start-up businesses there. A 23-year-old Oklahoman has opened a simple pizza restaurant in a town in Gansu province, while a Texan tours Shanghai department stores with a video camera, offering a live feed and bargaining services to wealthy Americans sitting at home in their living rooms.
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” President Kennedy proclaimed at his inauguration in 1961. JFK would have approved of today’s Chinese.
Zhou Shousheng was back in his village because the building sites in Beijing had been closed to clean the air for the Olympic Games. In the city of Yiwu, the world’s largest market for Christmas decorations and countless other cheap goods, traders were suffering grievously because the pre-Olympic visa crackdown has kept foreign buyers away. None complained. They were happy to sacrifice for the greater good – a notion instilled from birth.
“It’s the big wish of the 1.3 billion Chinese to have the Olympics,” one said. “If the West has fewer Father Christmases this year, it’s worth it.”
For sheer dynamism the Beijing Iron and Steel Company takes some beating. For 89 years its giant plant has blanketed the capital with smoke and sulphur dioxide. The Olympics forced its closure, so the company is building a giant, state-of-the-art plant at Caofeidian, on the coast of Hebei province. About 40,000 labourers began work in March last year. Production will start in October – 20 months later.
The plant is surrounded by 140 square miles of tidal flats that are being reclaimed from the sea and will soon be covered in new petrochemical plants, power stations and other heavy industry. This is not unusual. Everywhere you go in China there are new highways, bridges, airports, railway stations – whole cities that did not exist two decades ago. While much of America’s infrastructure is deteriorating because its people prefer tax cuts, China is investing heavily in the future.
Such achievements are much easier, of course, for an authoritarian Government that stifles dissent, tramples on human rights and has several hundred million dirt-cheap labourers at its disposal.
The Chinese are not “free”, but outside Tibet – and with a few other high-profile exceptions – they wear their oppression lightly. I detected no great clamour for democracy at this stage in the country’s development. Security and prosperity come higher on most people’s wish list. On that score the regime has delivered spectacularly, with 400 million Chinese lifted from poverty in the past 30 years and consistent double-digit growth rates.
The Chinese can travel abroad, but how many abscond? Many local officials are corrupt and reviled, but if China’s communist leaders stood in free elections they would probably romp home. A recent survey for the Pew Research Centre showed that an astonishing 86 per cent of Chinese are satisfied with their country’s direction, putting China 25 points ahead of second-placed Australia in the global contentment rankings.
The US came 20th out of the 24 countries surveyed, with only 23percent satisfied. Nigerians, Pakistanis, Mexicans and Tanzanians were all happier.
None of this is immediately apparent from the Western media’s Olympic coverage. It has, rightly, reported on the crushing of protests and internet censorship. It has decried the pollution (conveniently forgetting that we have shipped most of our dirty industries to China so that we can buy the end products more cheaply). It had a field day with the digitally enhanced fireworks, the pretty young “singer” who mimed her words, and the other little tricks the Chinese used to stage the most sensational opening ceremony ever seen. None of this criticism is wrong, but it is hardly a rounded picture.