Beijing's Triumph of Engineering

Workers adjust the Olympic Green pavement at the National Stadium before the Beijing Olympic Games on August 4, 2008. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Workers adjust the Olympic Green pavement at the National Stadium before the Beijing Olympic Games on August 4, 2008. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

by Jamie Metzl
Executive Vice President, Asia Society

Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, August 26, 2008

China is a country run by engineers, and the tremendous success of the Beijing Games can, from the Chinese perspective at least, be seen as a triumph of engineering.

The Chinese central government established a blueprint years ago for how the Games would play out—from how the Olympics venues would be constructed to how many gold medals the country would win—and stuck to their plan with an uncanny tenacity, even in the face of strong criticism, as the Games approached. The rest of the world, with whatever reservations remain, can be nothing less than enormously impressed by how well this plan was realized.

Most of us in the West are accustomed to organic growth within societies. Cities develop over decades, new industries emerge from the creativity of an open market of ideas, and societal growth represents the sum total of the distributed set of individual choices of an entire population. This system has served us well and continues to deliver.

But there is no denying that the Chinese model of central coordination in the realization of national strategic plans appears to be working and delivering startlingly impressive results, no matter how many times this approach has failed elsewhere. China is maintaining an incredible record of growth, bringing millions of people out of poverty, and starting to tackle some of the enormous challenges it faces with regard to its uneven development. New cities are sprouting up almost overnight from farmland.

From the engineer’s perspective of the Chinese leadership, based on its history of vacillating between centralizing control and decentralizing chaos, this progress could not be made so quickly in a more open and pluralistic society. In fact, rather than accepting the multiple narratives that weave together to create a pluralistic society, China’s leaders are actively seeking to promote a single narrative of the country’s past, present, and future. It is not surprising then that those challenging that narrative, whether seeking greater autonomy for Tibet or applying for permits to raise their concerns at designated protest parks, are being squashed.

It is great, from the Beijing perspective, for architects and engineers to have detailed plans for a building, but it makes far less sense to have carpenters and plumbers making their own decisions.

In light of the apparent success of China’s approach in securing growth, organizing the Olympics, and dominating the gold medal count, Beijing will emerge from the Olympic Games far more confident in their chosen path and their ability to keep to it in spite of outside pressure. This will make it far more difficult for outsiders to have any impact on changing China through criticism alone.

Instead, in addition to working collaboratively to help China become a more responsible stakeholder in global affairs, democratic societies, and most importantly the United States, must work to renew the liberal democratic model starting at home. The more that the U.S. continues to make disastrous foreign policy decisions like the invasion of Iraq, fails to develop the political ability to address critical issues like immigration and health care, poorly regulates its financial markets, and swells its debt to foreign governments, the less the U.S. and other democratic countries will be able to present an attractive model for societal organization to the rest of the world and in turn benefit from the magnetic attraction of such a model.

Conversely, the more Western governments can show that the liberal democratic system can make good decisions and unleash the creative potential of its people, the more that this model will appeal elsewhere.

The Beijing Olympics have by design been more than a sporting event. They have highlighted the strengths of a Chinese society that is an ever more serious competitor in nearly every sphere of endeavor.

Those in the democratic world interested in seeing a more open China that can accommodate more voices at home and play a more constructive role abroad can no longer hope to successfully promote this agenda through criticism alone. Now that China has developed a legitimate alternative model to liberal democracy, a point driven home in the Chinese and international imagination by the Beijing Games, democratic societies must show through their own action that the liberal democratic system can yield better results than a system run by very competent engineers can secure. Let the competition begin.

Jamie Metzl, who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, is executive vice president of the Asia Society.