The Beijing Olympic Games were a powerful spectacle, stunning in sight and sound. But the moment that made the biggest impression on me came during an informal visit just before the Games to one of the new Chinese Internet companies, and in conversation with some of the younger Chinese entrepreneurs.
These people, men and women, were smart, sharp, forthright, unafraid to express their views about China and its future. Above all, there was a confidence, an optimism, a lack of the cynical, and a presence of the spirit of get up and go, that reminded me greatly of the U.S. at its best and any country on its way forward.
These people weren"t living in fear, but looking forward in hope. And for all the millions still in poverty in China, for all the sweep of issues -- political, social and economic -- still to be addressed, that was the spirit of China during this festival of sport, and that is the spirit that will define its future.
During my 10 years as British leader, I could see the accelerating pace of China"s continued emergence as a major power. I gave speeches about China, I understood it analytically. But I did not feel it emotionally and therefore did not fully understand it politically.
Since leaving office I have visited four times and will shortly return again. People ask what is the legacy of these Olympics for China? It is that they mark a new epoch -- an opening up of China that can never be reversed. It also means that ignorance and fear of China will steadily decline as the reality of modern China becomes more apparent.
Power and influence is shifting to the East. In time will come India, too. Some see all this as a threat. I see it as an enormous opportunity. But we have to exercise a lot of imagination and eliminate any vestiges of historic arrogance.
The volunteer force that staged the Games was interested, friendly and helpful. The whole feel of the city was a world away from the China I remember on my first visit 20 years ago. And the people are proud, really and honestly proud, of their country and its progress.
No sensible Chinese person -- including the country"s leadership -- doubts there remain issues of human rights and political and religious freedom to be resolved. But neither do the sensible people -- including the most Western-orientated Chinese -- doubt the huge change, for the better, there has been. China is on a journey. It is moving forward quickly. But it knows perfectly well the journey is not complete. Observers should illuminate the distance to go, by all means, but recognize the distance traveled.
The Chinese leadership is understandably preoccupied with internal development. Beijing and Shanghai no more paint for you the complete picture of China than New York and Washington do of the U.S. Understanding the internal challenge is fundamental to understanding China, its politics and its psyche. We in Europe have roughly 5% of our population employed in agriculture. China has almost 60%. Over the coming years it will seek to move hundreds of millions of its people from a rural to an urban economy. Of course India will seek to do the same, and the scale of this transformation will create huge challenges and opportunities in the economy, the environment and politically.
For China, this economic and social transformation has to come with political stability. It is in all our interests that it does. The policy of One China is not a piece of indulgent nationalism. It is an existential issue if China is to hold together in a peaceful and stable manner as it modernizes. This is why t¡bet is not simply a religious issue for China but a profoundly political one -- t¡bet being roughly a quarter of China"s land mass albeit with a small population.
So we should continue to engage in a dialogue over the issues that rightly concern people, but we should conduct it with at least some sensitivity to the way China sees them.
This means that the West needs a strong partnership with China, one that goes deep, not just economically but politically and culturally. The truth is that nothing in the 21st century will work well without China"s full engagement. The challenges we face today are global. China is now a major global player. So whether the issue is climate change, Africa, world trade or the myriad of security questions, we need China to be constructive; we need it to be using its power in partnership with us. None of this means we shouldn"t continue to raise the issues of human rights, religious freedoms and democratic reforms as European and American leaders have done in recent weeks.
It is possible to hyperbolize about the rise of China. For example, Europe"s economies are still major and combined outreach those of China and India combined. But, as the Olympics and its medal tables show, it is not going to stay that way. This is a historic moment of change. Fast forward 10 years and everyone will know it.
For centuries, the power has resided in the West, with various European powers including the British Empire and then, in the 20th century, the U.S. Now we will have to come to terms with a world in which the power is shared with the Far East. I wonder if we quite understand what that means, we whose culture (not just our politics and economies) has dominated for so long. It will be a rather strange, possibly unnerving experience. Personally, I think it will be incredibly enriching. New experiences; new ways of thinking liberate creative energy. But in any event, it will be a fact we have to come to terms with. For the next U.S. president, this will be or should be at the very top of the agenda, and as a result of the strength of the Sino-U.S. relationship under President Bush, there is a sound platform to build upon.
The Olympics is now the biggest sporting event in the world, and because of the popularity of sport it is therefore one of the events that makes a genuine impact on real people. These Games have given people a glimpse of modern China in a way that no amount of political speeches could do.
London 2012 gives Britain a tremendous chance to explore some of these changes and explain to the East what the modern West is about. One thing is for certain: Hosting the Olympics is now a fantastic opportunity for any nation. My thoughts after the Beijing Games are that we shouldn"t try to emulate the wonder of the opening ceremony. It was the spectacular to end all spectaculars and probably can never be bettered. We should instead do something different, drawing maybe on the ideals and spirit of the Olympic movement. We should do it our way, like they did it theirs. And we should learn from and respect each other. That is the way of the 21st century.
Mr. Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain, is teaching a course on faith and globalization at the Yale Schools of Management and Divinity.