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How will the Olympics affect U.S.-China ties?

As China opens itself up to the world, how will the competition affect its present and future relationship with the U.S.? NBC China analyst Joshua Ramo provides insight into this dynamic relationship.
/ Source: TODAY

As China opens itself up to the world to host the 2008 Olympic Games, how will the competition affect the present and future relationship with the U.S.? Here, Joshua Ramo, NBC China analyst and former senior editor at Time magazine, talks to TODAY producer Dan Fleschner about the ever-changing relationship between two major players on the world stage.

Q: In general, how would you characterize the U.S.-China relationship right now?

A: I think we're in the process of moving from a bilateral relationship that was really simple when it started. The natural interest of the two countries in the middle of the Cold War dictated that a close relationship was sensible. [Now we've moved] to one that logically has become more complex, as the economies get more interwoven, as we collaborate with them on national security issues, intellectual property and the environment.

The issue going forward is that as this relationship gets more complex, is there some moment at which it becomes incredibly simple, [where] the two sides basically come to an agreement that there's no problem in the world that can be solved unless the two sides work together ... so it becomes a cooperative arrangement.

At the moment, as you look across that chaotic stew of different engagements, we have areas that are very successful — like North Korea — and areas where we've made no progress, like proliferation in Iran. You can take the temperature and health of different areas, but it's not necessarily indicative of where the relationship is going to go in the next 10-15 years.

And it maybe leaves out the single most important thing, which is the nature of the domestic political debate both within China and within the United States. That's why the Olympics are so important, particularly in the U.S. It's the first time 100+ million Americans will be taking a serious look at this country. They're either going to come away with the impression that this is a place to be terrified of or that it's a country that will never be excluded from the international system again and we must deal with them on their terms. That's what's at stake in the next two weeks here.

Q: Many people are interested in how the Chinese would react if there's a protest or demonstration — and how they might react to harsh criticism by the international press. Do we need to differentiate between the government reaction and the public reaction?

A: It's a huge distinction. It's also one that should be made if something were to happen in the United States as well. We don't know how the government is going to respond. What we know for sure is that there has been a very full debate about how the government will respond.

It's important, no matter what they do, to understand that there is some kind of coma state that never debates or discusses things. They have enough people in the party apparatus who are aware of the implications of both extremes: one extreme being tolerating whatever happens and you do nothing; the other being cracking down hard. There are groups inside the party that have argued both sides, and we may not know what the reaction will be until something happens ...

In terms of the Chinese people, it's much harder to control — one of the reasons the government reaction is important, because to some degree it will set the tone for how the public reacts. They've never been through this before. This is new for this country. It is a populace that is by and large still used to taking its cues from the government ... But it's absolutely possible that there will be some sort of outrage among the Chinese people that is very difficult to control. They're no longer a country that moves in lockstep.

Q: As the Olympics approached, the international media focused on a laundry list of issues like human rights, Tibet, and support of the government in Sudan, all of which has — at least in part — caused an upsurge in nationalism, an "us-against-the-world" kind of mentality. Should we see that as dangerous? And is this nationalism going to last for two weeks, or for the foreseeable future?

A: The roots of nationalism in China go back 150 years to the Opium Wars. There has been both a legitimate sense of victimhood and a sense that has been cultivated by the party as a way to legitimize their rule. So average Chinese people, as excited and amazed as they are about the strides the economy has made, are very quick to temper when they feel that their face is somehow at issue, or a reflection of a lack of strength for China.

I think it's possible that if something bad happens, there will be a fundamental shift in how China deals with the world ... The Sept. 11 attacks changed the American perception of national interest very dramatically. The Tibet riots and the overseas reaction to some degree changed the idea that engaging with the West was a good thing.

Q: We know what issues the U.S. has with China. But what are China's issues with the U.S.?

A: One is the general psychological sense of the unevenness of the relationship. They're very reluctant to use the word "superpower" about themselves. They're very reluctant because it is a country that has 500 million people living on less than $2 a day, which doesn't fit anyone's definition of a superpower. [It's] also because they don't feel at the moment that they are competitive with us on the global stage ...

The frustration with us is that they don't feel like we're engaging their rise in a respectful way. They want Americans and American leaders to take note of what's been accomplished here. Most Chinese people know much more about Americans than Americans know about China.

One of the reasons the Olympics are so important, and why the Opening Ceremony puts Chinese culture first, is that it's an invitation to understand China. It's a very strong belief that if you just try Chinese culture, you slowly begin to imbibe these values of living that are really quite profound.

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Q: The common belief is that the IOC [International Olympic Committee] gave Beijing the games of the XXIX Olympiad in part as a carrot to nudge them in the right direction. How much of a success or failure has that been?

A: I think the Olympics have changed the perspective of how they deal with the outside world, internationalized them more, but I also think the party is incredibly aware of continuing to have the support of the Chinese people. It's not a democracy, but they feel like they represent the will of the people.

And the Chinese people are eager for some sort of adjustment in the political structure. That's a process that's been going on since 2002, and that's going to be the big story coming out of China over the next 10-15 years. The Olympics are a piece of that puzzle.

Q: Individual freedoms for us in the U.S. are paramount. Living the American dream is living the way I want to live. Does the individual hold the same place in Chinese society?

A: Traditionally, the individual in Chinese culture only makes sense within the context of the group. If you look at the Chinese name, the fact that the last name comes before the first name shows that family comes before the individual.

The Chinese sense of context is defined by the environment around them, by the people around them, by the work that they do. The challenge of modernity is that it's all about people inventing their own lives. Capitalist economy requires that, a country where people are allowed to move from place to place requires that. So this is a very big challenge for China. This reinvention of the sense of individual identity, but one that's still part of this overall whole.

It's also potentially the thing that saves China. Because this is what keeps the average Chinese person from saying, "Screw this, I'm going out and burning things down." It's impossible for everyone in China to have their own car. Not only would the traffic be incredible, but it would destroy the environment. So how do you build a modern country in which people accept that they're not allowed to have a car?

Well, you do it by having a people who understand there's a group context and responsibility that comes before the individual desire. That's what they're trying to foster now. And that's why they need political reform, because this system was built to manage the same people, wearing the same clothes with the same ideas, reading the same red book. It was not set up to deal with some 22-year-old kid starting an Internet company that's worth $2 million and owns a Rolls Royce.

Q: Does that cultural difference make it hard for us to judge the Chinese people by our standards? Is there a danger in us judging them by our standards?

A: It makes for incredible collisions. The way the Chinese make decisions is so different. If you sit in a Chinese meeting, often the most powerful person never speaks. Mastery in the meeting is by organizing things so well in advance that the outcome becomes inevitable.

Just from sitting across the table from these people, if you fail to understand their culture, you're going to aggravate them, and also likely to have your clock cleaned in the meeting.

Q: A recent survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 86 percent of Chinese people said they were content with their country's direction. That's almost double the percentage who said they were content in 2002. Compare that with only 23 percent of Americans who are satisfied with our country's direction. What is the root of their happiness?

A: First of all, that is an incredibly difficult way to conduct a poll. You want to be somewhat thoughtful about that number. Having said that, if you think about what Chinese people have seen over the course of their lives, it has been more and more growth. For anyone born after 1978, there has basically been nothing but 10 percent annual growth.

It has been a relatively level, steady progress in people's lives. Not just in the basic physical prosperity, but also, look around: Five years ago in Beijing, [there were] three Starbucks shops. Now [there are] more than 500. It's a society that's getting more and more convenient. That's why they're happy— things continue to go well.

On the flip side, it masks a tremendous amount of underlying uncertainty that all Chinese feel. You can see that in the day-to-day frictions of Chinese life. They're happy, but they're stressed-out people.