China's hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games may prove to be a watershed for its international image. Of course there are many difficulties about sounding out public opinion in a nation where an authoritarian government is still dominated by a single party. But there can be no question that most of the Middle Kingdom's citizens want their country to be a central force in world affairs in the 21st century. The 2008 Olympics were a powerful expression of this intent.
Any foreign visitor to Beijing in 2008 must have been awed by the scale, modernity and ambition of China's capital. A quarter of a century ago, most people moved around the city on bicycles and lived in hutongs, alleyways of cramped and often dilapidated low-rise structures of great charm but a marked aversion to plumbing and wiring. Today cars speed between districts on superb motorways, while the hutongs have been replaced by clean and shining blocks of flats. If it were not for the difference in script on advertising hoardings, Beijing would have the look and feel of a city in Europe or North America.
This creates a puzzle. No doubt party diktat has been responsible over the past few years for a diversion of resources to an Olympics-related construction boom and Beijing's appearance is to some degree a Potemkin façade. Nevertheless, Beijing has a population of 20m people who, on the face of it, enjoy living standards similar to those in Europe and North America. Although the average living standard in Beijing is probably four times or more that in China as a whole, China must have a stupendously large national output and, consequently, an economic weight with profound geopolitical consequences.
Given that China's population is more than 1.3bn, far higher than America's of less than 300m and Germany's of 80m, the European-ness of Beijing implies that China's national output already exceeds that of any other country. Given also that China's output is expected to grow by at least 7 per cent a year for another decade or two (and that a 7 percent growth rate doubles output in a decade), the message is that by the 2030s China will have an economic weight in the world two or three times that of its nearest rival, the USA.