China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt

Tarek Osman
7 August 2008

Over the past few months, work has repeatedlytaken me to east Africa. In almost all of myflights, the man next to me was Chinese. Sometimes a business developmentmanager for a commodities trading company, sometimes a telecoms executive,sometimes an agribusiness professional, sometimes just a not-so-talkative"businessman".

Among openDemocracy'sarticles on China in 2008:

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: frommonochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising'legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, andthe internet"(4 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: aglobalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China'sfix-it governance"(30 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "The Olympics countdown: Beijingto Shanghai"(7 August 2008)

In Egypt, the most significant foreigndirect investment in 2007 was the Chineselight-manufacturing city: an ambitious mega-assembly centre focusing on a number oflight industries.

Two of the largest non-real estate investmentsmade in 2007 by Gulf sovereign wealth funds were in China: a stake in a major commercialbank, and a joint venture to create a major investment holding company.

Now, on 8 August 2008, around 40 millionEgyptians will watch the beginning of the Beijing Olympics.

China's rise, to an Egyptian, has the taste ofCantonese sauce - sweet and sour. The ascendancy of a poor nation, an oldcivilisation is heartwarming. The comparison of where "Egypt vs China" is today is sour. True, Egypt is no China. It lacks the demographicweight, the political clout, the enormous economic potential, and the militarymight. But at the core of the comparison lie many similarities - the ancientheritage, the glamorous history, the deep traditions, the populous agriculturalland, and the sense of an entitled civilisation. China'sascendancy (or India's growthfor that matter) compels Egyptians to inwardly reflect on where they are andwhere they are going.

China's rise - apart from all political analysis, economictheorisation, investment opportunities, assessment of the ruling regime'smorality, and strategic opining - is the story of a successful nation. The move of hundreds of millions from severe indigenceto the brink of middle-class lifestyles, the graduation of a nation frompeasantry to modernity and urbanism, and the climb of a country fromirrelevance to prominence - these are inspiring to millions in developingnations, including those living in rural poverty on the banks of the Nile.

Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the International OlympicCoordination Commission for Beijing 2008, said in July 2008:"Here in the Chinesecapital you can now really sense the excitement and anticipation. The cityfeels ready; it looks ready, with the stunning venues all completed. Thequality of preparation, the readiness of the venues and the attention tooperational detail for these games have set a gold standard for the future.What our hosts have achieved is exceptional."

I cannot but compare that all-approving,thumbs-up assessment with Egypt'sfailure to win the right to host football's World Cup in 2010, in which thecountry's bidreceived zero votes from the organising commission. Such bleak comparison isnot masochism, but a reminder that success stories - especially those of wholenations - are fundamentally stories of people who aimed to succeed and had thewill and discipline to follow through. The Chinese telecoms executive next tome on the plane was visiting Nairobifor the sixth time in pursuit of a relatively small order. "Ah, but in fiveyears, this market will be big, and we're working on it", he said.

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