Monday, August 25, 2008

china, the olympics, and the leadership problem

Just back from a conference on tax and culture (!) at Tel Aviv University, at which one of the significant topics was (as always) the rise of China and its implications for the global tax system. The issue seemed especially pressing given China's performance at the Beijing Olympics, which (depending how you count) placed it in either first or second place among the world's sporting nations. The Olympics also served as a kind of two week infomercial for the new China, although there was some bad as well as good publicity regarding pollution, episodic violence, and the usual human rights violations.

I've blogged about China before, and like others I am duly impressed by the country's rapid economic progress and the open, even relaxed manner of many of its citizens--a bright contrast to the persistent pessimism that seems to infect so many in the West these days. But am I the only one to find it weird focusing on grown men and women who spend their entire lives in a swimming pool, while outside people are arrested because they requested a protest permit? Is this really the image that China wants, and is this really the kind of power that is likely to impress people in the more advanced nations?

I likewise remain to be convinced about China's impending world leadership. Leadership means more than numbers: the capacity to inspire, to innovate, to serve as a model for others. When we say that Germany challenged Britain for leadership in the early 1900s, or the capitalist and communist systems battled in the middle of the last century, we mean that leadership in a whole number of areas--ideological, technological, cultural--was or at least appeared to be at stake together with raw economic and political power. China may get to this point, but I don't think it is there yet, and in some areas it is not even clear to me that it is moving forward. Does anyone viewing these last Olympics really say, this is the kind of place I want to live in? Do they make people want to go to China, learn the Chinese way of doing things, and bring them back to their home country? Until they do China will remains statistically impressive, but it is difficult to call it a world leader in the sense that the term is historically employed.


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