Two can excel at being the best

Updated: 2012-08-24 08:26

By Giles Chance (China Daily)

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Two can excel at being the best

Medals rivalry between China and the US at the Olympics holds a valuable lesson for both

One of the big questions before the start of the London Olympics last month was how Londoners would be able to match the unforgettable opening ceremony that Beijing had put on four years previously. In the event, London neatly sidestepped a direct comparison by organizing a show that was completely different and uniquely British, thereby providing an Olympic opening as memorable in its own way as Beijing's. Another key question in many people's minds before the Games was whether China could put its stamp on its new global superpower status by winning more Olympic gold medals than the United States. In the event, although China got off to a flying start, the US came out on top. But the US-China Olympic rivalry carries an important message of wider relevance.

The US team won 25 of its 46 gold medals in just two sports, swimming and athletics, and a further eight in team sports requiring size and speed, such as basketball. China, on the other hand, won four, five, six or seven golds in each of six different sports: weightlifting, diving and gymnastics, table tennis, swimming and badminton. The two countries only overlapped in pool events and in gymnastics, and then hardly. Liu Xiang's disappointing failure in the 110m hurdles deprived China of what many regarded as a near certain gold, but apart from that, and three lesser medals in walking and the pentathlon, the impact of China on Olympic athletics was as negligible as the impact of the US on table tennis, badminton, diving and weightlifting.

One is left with an impression of two different kinds of Olympic dominance: one, the American, with an unassailable advantage in muscular speed either through the water or on land; the other, the Chinese, with the capacity to excel in activities requiring aggression, courage, precision and speed of reaction.

Will the Chinese one day be able to match the Americans in athletics and swimming? Will the Americans ever be able to match the Chinese in weightlifting and diving? Given the money and breadth of talent available to both countries for the 2012 Games, the likely answer must be that either country already dominates in Olympic sports where it has some kind of natural advantage. Although the overall medal competition between China and the US was very fierce, in another sense the different natural sporting capabilities of the two countries meant that they did not compete directly. The Olympic competitions where a US athlete was first and a Chinese second or third (or vice-versa) were very few.

Around the world, the two countries compete head-on for global prestige, but their different histories, cultures and economies mean they complement each other, to their mutual advantage, much more often than they compete head-on in a zero-sum game. Overall, a strong China strengthens the US, and vice-versa. If the US economy grows, China's export industry obviously benefits, and China is the third-largest and fastest-growing export market for the US.

The US has been investing in China for many years at a rate of about $60 billion (48 billion euros) a year, while China's direct investment in the US grew 172 percent in 2010 to reach $3.2 billion. The fast-growing tourist trade between the two countries and the number of Chinese and US students learning each other's language demonstrate the interest that each country's people have in the other.

Sadly, though, this economic and cultural complementarity between the world's two major powers is not the most visible or important aspect of Sino-US relations. One needs to look no further than the US election to see how both Republicans and Democrats try to exploit the rich seam of anti-Chinese sentiment in their country to gain votes. Mitt Romney has made the referral of China to Congress as a currency manipulator a central plank of his campaign. Meanwhile, in January, Obama displayed a shrewd vote-winning sense in his State of the Union address, when he announced the formation of a trade enforcement unit "aimed at investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China". Meanwhile, in Beijing, the Chinese government understands fully the importance of displaying to its people a strong face toward the US, no matter what either side may say to each other in private.

The transfer of power and influence that we are witnessing, away from the West led by the US toward an emerging world led by China, has happened before, but only as the accompaniment to a major war or series of wars. Today, Americans do not take kindly to suggestions that they are no longer No 1 in economic terms, and are determined to maintain their position. But China's size and growth make its surpassing of the US in economic terms an inevitability.

According to the International Monetary Fund, already, in purchasing power parity terms, China occupies 14 percent of world GDP, against the US' 17 percent. How will the US be able to come to terms with a China that first matches it and then starts to tower over it economically? And what, on its side, can China do to reduce an increase in tension between the two superpowers that could one day lead to war?

China has to learn to play the global role of the gentle giant, not the brash, aggressive upstart that has just joined the game and wants to take everyone's ball away. It has to be understanding of, and must take steps to balance, the difficulties faced by Americans, who can already see that China will be bigger than them, and that this cannot be stopped. And it must find ways of educating the US about Chinese culture and history.

Unfortunately, after the US chose to back the Kuomintang in the late 1930s, the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 was regarded in Washington as a disaster for US Far Eastern policy. Most Americans still think that way. Only when the US starts to see China for what it really is can the essential complementarity of the two great world powers start to benefit both, and everyone else.

The author is a visiting professor at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 08/24/2012 page8)