After the Games, a real international awakening

China in 2009.
China's spectacular Bird's Nest Stadium, the name for a new generation of go-getters. (Getty Images)

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, 2008 was the best of years and it was the worst of years, as far as China was concerned.

The political and emotional roller coaster began with a series of calamities — unprecedented snowstorms, unrest in Tibet, the devastating earthquake in Sichuan and the almost worldwide condemnation of China's human rights record as the Olympic torch was wending its way around the globe.

By contrast, the unmitigated success of the Olympic games in August was a welcome turn of events for the Chinese. It signaled that China had finally joined the world as a modern superpower.

In the days following the Games, a new expression was coined to describe the emerging generation of young Chinese who were inspired by the Olympics: the Bird's-Nest generation, named after the Olympic stadium.

These young Chinese were said to be more confident, proud of their country and destined to be China's ambassadors to an increasingly integrated world.

Chinese earthquake survivors make their way through a neighbourhood destroyed by the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) ((David Guttenfelder/Associated Press))

Back on the roller coaster

In the aftermath of all this rejoicing, few would have predicted that the post-Olympic glow would be so short lived. The scandal involving tainted baby formula arrived only a few days after the closing ceremonies and traumatized the entire country.

Parents crowded emergency wards, worried that their infants may be suffering from kidney failure because some unscrupulous entrepreneurs laced the milk with the poison melamine, presumably to extend its shelf life and give it a higher protein content. At one point, at least 13,000 Chinese tots were hospitalized, pending tests and kidney treatment.

Then, as unpredictable as a winter storm, the financial collapse on Wall Street and subsequent worldwide recession hit China broadside.

Factories that had been churning out cheap products for the American and European markets ground to a halt. Thousands of unskilled workers were thrown out of work and onto the streets, with no social support.

Migrant workers, who used to send their savings to their families back home, were now returning to provinces that were so poor they could offer little help.

Factory to the world

Even in advance of the meltdown, economists had been warning that China's economic model of producing cheap products for the Western world was showing signs of fatigue.

Domestically Chinese products are not as competitive as they used to be because workers here have been demanding better wages. As a result, many factories have even moved to Viet Nam or Cambodia, Asia's next set of industrial sweatshops.

So China will now have to start producing consumer products for its own economy. But that will take time.

Still, the Chinese will tell you that the word "crisis" has a double meaning: "opportunity."

Tourists cruise China's Lesser Three Gorges in filmmaker Yung Chang's new documentary, Up the Yangtze. (Jonathan Chang/EyeSteelFilm/NFB in association with CBC Newsworld)

Out of the ashes of the economic model that was spawned by Deng Xiaoping's capitalist U-turn 30 years ago is emerging a new China.

In October, Chinese astronauts successfully made their first spacewalk. In January, a Chinese carmaker will unveil China's first hybrid car at the Detroit car show.

In addition, China has started test flights of its own jetliner that could, eventually, compete with giant Airbus and Boeing. On the environmental side, one of the country's richest men is China's king of solar panels.

Less predictable

In a sense, 2008 brought closure to China's ambition of catching up economically and to gain respect from the world with the Olympic Games.

What is starting to emerge is a new China, more diverse and less predictable.

This new China may not be as visible yet as the plant closings and the bad economic numbers that should continue to make headlines well into the new year.

In fact, there are already reports of unrest in many parts of the country as people demand compensation for lost jobs and opportunities.

Predictably, Chinese authorities are cracking down on dissenting voices as they try to deal with the fallout from the economic crisis.

The economic crisis and its fallout may not be the rite of passage most Chinese were expecting after the Olympics. But it may be the necessary transition for a country that is finally and fully part of the international community.