The Real Competition Behind the Olympic Games

The real competition lurking behind the upcoming Olympic games is between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism.

For years American policy toward China assumed that trade and economic growth would generate a large Chinese middle class, and this middle class would demand democratic reforms. We were right on the first part. The games will showcase a Chinese middle class so big that almost as many Chinese now use cell phones and the Internet as do Americans, and soon as many will own cars.

But we were wrong about the democracy part. We thought capitalism and democracy went hand in glove. They don’t. Economic reforms are well underway in China. Individual Chinese can own property and invest, trade and buy almost whatever they want. Private enterprise is in, collectives are out. But when it comes to civil and political rights, China today is where it was almost two decades ago at the time of Tiananmen Square.

Authoritarian capitalism works wonders if all you care about is getting ahead economically and being able to afford more stuff. Never before in history have so many people gained economic ground so fast as in China over the last two decades. But if you’re someone with a grievance, or you want to criticize those in power, or you’re a Tibetan or ethnic minority, or you happen to like clean air, you’re out of luck.

Democratic capitalism should win in the end because it responds far better to what people want — not only as consumers but also as citizens. Yet right now the outcome of the competition doesn’t seem so clear. The Chinese economy is booming while we’re in deep trouble. Eighty percent of Chinese are optimistic about the future but only 20 percent of Americans say this nation is on the right track. And most Americans tell pollsters they don’t trust politicians and believe our government is run by big corporations and the rich.

In terms of this large underlying competition, think of our upcoming presidential election is our own Olympic games. It will showcase to the world whether, and how well, democratic capitalism still works.


Originally published at Robert Reich’s Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "The Real Competition Behind the Olympic Games"

  1. Douglas Jaffe   August 8, 2008 at 3:56 am

    Two issues should be considered. One is that of timeframe. It is too early to look at the success or failure of the Chinese model and how political development will track economic development. It is likely a more consultative political process will evolve as that is what an economy requires as it becomes more sophisticated. As the cultural revolution generation passes from the scene, we will also see less of a knee-jerk reaction against political dissent and more confidence to handle things inclusively and without repression.The second issue relates to what the Chinese want. Democracy is not without some appeal in China, but the reality is that most Chinese simply want a level playing field. They want to ensure that someone else does not get ahead of them because of connections or other underhanded tactics. All things being equal, the Chinese would like an economy and society based on accepted rules and guidelines that let the most successful and capable succeed. They want to make sure that Guanxi does not elevate the mediocre over the talented. This is not democracy as we define it, but there are linkages here that could eventually sprout more democratic institutions and practices.It should not be forgotten that in all the many centuries; through various dynastic cycles; democracy was never really considered as an option. There was a culture of choosing and testing for the best talent to run the country; irrespective of bloodline, but this is very different conceptually from electing from the masses. It was about elevating the talented – chosen by rigorous testing – not choosing representatives through public election.

  2. jessica   January 16, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    yea….when did the olympic stert????im doing a project on the olympic games….