China - in a brazen quest for economic gold
A week or so ago I spent some a small amount of time with two groups of sports administrators and coaches from China in the UK for the Olympics but spending spend a little time away from London to get a sense of how sport is organised and promoted elsewhere. The two groups - from the province of Zhejiang and from the booming port city of Ningbo - met with the City Councils Sports and Events Team at the Alexander Stadium.
Their visit - although focused on sport - threw light from a different perspective on the question that agonises China- watchers - just how real and permanent is the economic transformation in China and what are its lasting implications for the rest of the world.
China's performance in the Olympic medal tables is seen as convenient - if very imperfect -signifier of the scale of change there. However going through the records to give the Chinese performance this summer some context, I was struck by the sense in which the Olympic Games of the last forty years or so provide a more comprehensive summary of changes and patterns in global politics. For anyone who remembers the slogan 'Keep politics out of sport', their complete inseparability rapidly becomes quite screamingly evident.
Any Martian prompted to speculate about goings-on on Earth by the recent arrival of Curiosity on his door step could learn everything about the confused and anxious state of international relations here simply by reviewing the headline reports of the Olympic Games.
Putting to one side the Black Power salute of Mexico in 1972 and the Black September atrocity of 1972 as occasions when realpolitik displaced sports, even a harmless anoraking of the medal table over the period tells much of the political story itself.
In 1980, the United States did not compete (younger readers may be nonplussed to find that this was in protest at the USSR invasion of Afghanistan the year before) and some other westerns nations only appeared under an umbrella Olympic banner; in 1984 the USSR together with its allies absented themselves in retaliation; the top of 1988 medal table was largely dominated by the USSR, the GDR ( East Germany) and other states of the then Eastern bloc; by 1992 neither the USSR not the GDR existed and a new economic order elsewhere was having its impact on sporting performance; then through the nineties and noughties, the tail of the table in particular saw a proliferation of new names appear as further political unwindings and regroupings had their impact.
China first appeared as the People's Republic of China in 1984 having wrested IOC membership from Taiwan ( which now competes as Chinese Taipei) along with a place in other international institutions. For the last four Olympics China has been in the top three of the medals table. Clearly engagement and - even more - evident success in this field is a significant aspect of the way the country presents itself to the rest of the world.
To return to our meetings with Chinese colleagues. Inevitably perhaps when middle managers from any organisation across the world gat together there was interest in budgets and other resources, in management structures and the everyday grit of bureaucratic life. The other area that was raised that lends itself to a much wider interpretation. It related to the UK approach to 'talent spotting'; identifying, nurturing and developing real ability and this has implications which go well beyond sport.
There are perhaps three essential strands of thought about Chinese recent economic success and its sustainability. One argues that scale of resources and markets is fundamental and that as China hasn't yet exploited anything like its advantages then continued success is certain; a second claims that success in the West has been due to the operation of true markets and market institutions and that these will never be fully tolerated in China - and so current success will peter out. The third contends that innovation is the real key, that China's achievement here is limited in recent history and so economic development cannot continue.
With regard to this final point there is evidence that the vital need to find and grow talent is increasingly appreciated in China and that its significance goes well beyond sport. When Guangzhou city leaders were in Birmingham last year they showcased a major programme providing significant financial and other incentives for scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs from within China and from overseas persuading them to relocate to the region. Guangzhou is far from alone in operating this sort of initiative.
There were scathing comments from some quarters about 'plastic Brits' in some of Team GB's sports squads; China by contrast seems happy to be quite brazen in its pursuit of ultimate economic gold