Sunday, August 24

Melting Pot Meets Great Wall


The Olympics may just be a sporting event, but it is hard not to read larger messages into the results, especially when you see how China and America have dominated the medals tally. Both countries can — and will — look at their Olympic successes as reaffirmations of their distinctly different political systems. But what strikes me is how much they could each learn from the other. This, as they say, is a teaching moment.

Call it: One Olympics — two systems.

How so? You can’t look at the U.S. Olympic team and not see the strength that comes from diversity, and you can’t look at the Chinese team and not see the strength that comes from intense focus and concentrated power.

Let’s start with us. Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them.

This is especially true when you include the coaches. Liang Chow, the coach of the Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, was a popular co-caption of China’s national gymnastics team in the 1980s before he emigrated to West Des Moines. The U.S. women’s volleyball team was coached by a former Chinese player, Jenny Lang Ping, when it defeated China a few days ago. Lang, a national hero in China, led the Chinese team to a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It would be like Michael Jordan coaching China’s basketball team to a win over America.

The Associated Press reports that there are 33 foreign-born players on the U.S. Olympic team, including four Chinese-born table tennis players, a kayaker from Britain, seven members of the track-and-field team — as well as Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan’s civil war, who was resettled in the U.S. by Catholic Charities, and Leo Manzano, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican laborer. He moved to the U.S. when he was 4 but didn’t gain citizenship until 2004.

It is amazing that with our Noah’s Ark of an Olympic team doing so well “that at the same time you have this rising call in America to restrict immigration,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “Some people want to choke off the very thing that makes us strong and unique.”

China could learn something from our Olympic team as well: the power that comes from a strong society, woven together of many strands from the bottom up. For instance, it’s hard to drive around Beijing these days and not enjoy the thinned-out traffic and blue sky — which are largely the result of China ordering drivers off the roads and closing factories — and not wonder how these can be sustained after the Olympics. Many Chinese I have spoken to have asked: How can we keep this? Now that we have seen how blue the sky really can be, we don’t want to give it away.

The problem for China, though, is that environmentalism is a bottom-up movement in the rest of the world. While it requires a strong government to pass regulations from the top, it also can’t work without a strong, independent civil society acting as a watchdog, spotlighting polluters and suing businesses that do not comply. China can be green for the two weeks of the Olympics from the top down, but it can’t be green for the next 20 years without more bottom up.

That said, there are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through. A Chinese academic friend tells me that the success of the Olympics is already prompting some high officials to argue that only a strong, top-down, Communist Party-led China could have organized the stunning building projects around these Olympics and the focused performance of so many different Chinese athletes. For instance, the Chinese have no tradition of rowing teams, but at these Games, out of nowhere, Beijing fielded a women’s quadruple sculls crew that won China’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.

The lesson for us is surely not that we need authoritarian government. The lesson is that we need to make our democracy work better. The American men’s basketball team did poorly in the last Olympics because it could not play as a team. So our stars were beaten by inferior players with better teamwork. Our basketball team learned its lesson.

Congress has gotten worse. Our democracy feels increasingly paralyzed because collaboration in Washington has become nearly impossible — whether because of money, gerrymandering, a 24-hour-news cycle or the permanent presidential campaign. And as a result, our ability to focus America’s incredible bottom-up energies — outside of sports — has diminished. You see it in our crumbling infrastructure and inability to shape a real energy program. China feels focused. We feel distracted.

So, yes, America and China should enjoy their medals — but we should each also reflect on how the other team got so many.